Former Australian leg-spinner Richie Benaud’s pause was one of his greatest gifts to commentary. The best of sports allows for that pause, as it did for MS Dhoni moments after Ravindra Jadeja hit the winning runs in the IPL 2023 final against Gujarat Titans in Ahmedabad. As his teammates scurried to the centre, Dhoni paused briefly in the dugout before breaking into a relieved smile, which bookended a memorable IPL season for CSK.
Keeping your eyes fixed on Dhoni throughout a match can be spellbinding and deadly dull; his mastery of impassiveness and indifference makes you wonder what goes on in his head. But it says something about his captivating allure that fans continue to be bewildered and charmed by it.
However, this season was different. There was an almost childlike eagerness to win. One of the indelible images of CSK’s final triumph was when Jadeja sprinted towards Dhoni, who screamed in delight as he lifted him in one motion, visibly overcome by emotions. It was a bit overwhelming for those watching — a moment of genuine release and vulnerability, reinstating the belief that Dhoni is human and that his celebrity status and success do not insulate him from raw emotions.
In his heyday, it was difficult to imagine Dhoni growing old. His speed while running between the wickets made it look like he was playing the game at a different level.
But now there was a desperation in his movements. Yet Dhoni’s most telling impact on the team this season may be found in his least dramatic, least kinetic activity on the field: his meandering movements behind the stumps, where he spent much of the time simply observing and thinking.
His greatest accomplishment was how he made room for the bullish attacking play of the old and experienced Ambati Rayudu and Ajinkya Rahane on one hand and a previously middling Shivam Dube, who is trying to reinvent himself, on the other. The team both is and isn’t built around Dhoni; therein lies his genius.
Dhoni himself has always seen cricket as his deliverance. When asked about the rousing reception he got at each venue this year, he said, “I think they [fans] love me for who I am. Being grounded is something they like in me. Also, because of the kind of cricket I play, everyone in the stadium feels they can play that kind of cricket because there’s nothing orthodox about it. I feel they can relate to me more than anyone else.”
Dhoni’s name has already attained cult status in Chennai, the port city he made his second home during the glorious years at the peak of his career.
But his embrace of emotions this season lent credence to an eloquent assertion of a grandeur that is now greater than any club rivalry or an increasingly aggressive parochial fandom.