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MS Dhoni could not have chosen a better time to make a point about cricketing instincts ingrained in him than in the IPL Qualifier I. The Team India mentor for T20 World Cup 2021, also Chennai Super Kings skipper, made sure he will be closely watched by players on the national squad in other franchises for the way he calmly executes plans devised in his mind. So that later when they sit down with the mentor to plan the way ahead for the big one (co-hosted by UAE and Oman), he is sure to get their full attention, in keeping with a reputation as one of the sharpest minds in limited-overs cricket.
Flashes of his universally respected ability to take charge of a run chase was on show against Delhi Capitals. The intent to come ahead of all-rounder Ravindra Jadeja, his body language at the crease from the first ball faced in a brief, useful knock showed that Dhoni remains the front-seat driver at CSK. When the team in golden yellow confirmed a final place one more time, the wicket-keeper/captain was seen in an influential role, in the dressing room and on the pitch. When he makes a statement with bat in hand, opponents can only watch in wonder about how the mind works when reading game situations.
He was in charge of India’s campaign for the T20 World Cup 2007 in South Africa, the launch year for the event. Rohit Sharma is the only player from that triumphant side among those shortlisted to play for India in T20 World Cup 2021. Others younger than him retired to become expert commentators, the 40-year-old is sharp behind the wickets, faster running between the wickets than many of them. From that all-conquering 2007 bunch, Robin Uthappa (CSK), Dinesh Karthik, Harbhajan Singh (both Kolkata Knight Riders) are the only ex-teammates still competing in the IPL. He outlasted most of them and calls the shots in IPL.
Fourteen seasons after returning to India with the trophy, he will step into T20 World Cup action in an off-the -field capacity, as per a decision by the BCCI to utilise his experience and expertise. The new role remains undefined so far, but can be explained as a mix of what a Head of Operations is supposed to do in a business firm and a non-playing captain does in team tennis (Davis Cup) or team golf (Ryder Cup). India coach Ravi Shastri, captain Virat Kohli are expected to work out a chain of command with him. The respect both have for a former captain will ensure that the match-day squad pulls in the direction decided by Dhoni.
CSK mirrors that team bonding at the franchise level. Head coach Stephen Fleming works behind the scene complementing with Dhoni, players are ever ready to deliver for a senior who is an expert at thinking on his feet, Clarity in communication between the captain and individual players about the roles expected from them is a management lesson from team sport. Stroke-player Uthappa, a T20 World Cupper from 2007 champion team from that thrilling Johannesburg final against Pakistan, was told in blunt teams by Dhoni about having to fight for a place in CSK’s 2021 season squad.
Uthappa, a hard-hitting batsman whose ability to turn a match around and experience with different IPL teams, resulted in Rajasthan Royals valuing him at Rs 3-crore in 2020 season, was traded to CSK for the current edition. The Orange Cap holder (representing KKR) earlier was made to wait for his turn by the CSK captain and it was only during the first Qualifier against Delhi Capitals that a former T20 World Cupper cut loose at the crease, partnering the prolific opener Ruturaj Gaikwad. Dhoni’s knack at player-handling has benefitted the franchise and Team India.
Bowler/all-rounders Ravindra Jadeja, Shardul Thakur, Deepak Chahar are names which come to mind among CSK match-winners whose confidence rose to a different level once their performances matched the captain’s expectations. The former is on the T20 World Cup squad, the other two were listed among the standbys only because of competition for fast bowling places on the squad. Jadeja and Thakur have progressed to higher level for India in all three formats of the game.
Team India is missing Dhoni’s proactive captaincy in World Cups, even as CSK moved forward on confident steps. The mentor status at the T20 World Cup adds another dimension to his contribution, the closest role to actually playing. When the curtain comes down on IPL 2021 and World Cup preparations commences, Rohit Sharma remains the only teammate from the 2007 World Cup in the squad. He was sent in at number six, behind the skipper, that day when India clinched the title at Wanderers Stadium, Johannesburg. Years later, he is the leader of the batting pack, under a former captain-turned-mentor.
Sharma, as the T20 run-getter for India, moved ahead of his senior (2864 runs in 111 appearances for India against 1617 runs from 98 T20 matches by Dhoni). As India vice-captain for the World Cup, the 34-year-old Mumbai Indians skipper and India opener will have useful lessons to learn on the job from the team mentor, who at 40 is proving that, mind and body willing, CSK captaincy or India mentor role, he has it in him to show the way.