Sam Curran's brief cameo with the bat against the Mumbai Indians in the opening game had pleased Mahendra Singh Dhoni to a large extent. Not only was Curran the only youngster in the ageing XI, but Dhoni had found a power hitter in the lower order that he could base his batting around. For a while now, Dhoni has realised his reflexes and power have disowned him. He has needed a couple of strong hitters to rally around. In IPL 2020, those players were always going to be Kedar Jadhav and Ravindra Jadeja. After the first game, he had found another in Curran.
These three players were going to be his lieutenants. They would be the ones that would take the maximum risks while he holds up one end. It's only when the situation is cut-throat in the last couple of overs, he unleashes his power game. In the past, even if those players have failed him, he had the presence to dig his team out of trouble. Now, he can't.
The game plan that Dhoni thrived on is failing in front of his eyes. Deep down Dhoni knows that he cannot fix it on his own. He is frustrated and using all his experience to rationalise the blame game in the post match comments.
"We need to give youngsters a go," he finally stated before the Mumbai match. But instead of taking up the responsibility, he stuck to a role that he has always been accustomed to 'wait, wait and wait'. Clearly, that has not worked. Now time has run out.
If ever a situation demanded vintage Dhoni, it was last night. Walking in at 3/3, he had 18 overs to bat. He could take his time and rally around batters like Jadeja and Curran. Two sweet back foot punches off Jasprit Bumrah at the start of the innings indicated that Dhoni was in for the long haul. But the minute the spinners came on, he was stuck. Dhoni faced seven consecutive balls from Rahul Chahar and Krunal Pandya. In his prime, he would have told himself that he could catch up later in the innings. But last night, he doubted himself. A sign that the enormous belief Dhoni had in his own method was disappearing.
Dhoni would eventually fall prey to the pressure game. After pushing and prodding, he danced down the track and smashed Chahar for maximum. Dhoni had taken a risk, that too in the seventh over. Chennai had lost five wickets by the time, so Chahar had nothing to lose so he dangled the bait by tossing up another loopy leg-spinner. Dhoni of old would have been smart enough to just let it go through to the keeper, but this is the ageing Dhoni that is desperately in search of opportunities. Instead of trying to hit the ball straight, he swiped across the line and edged the delivery to the keeper.
As Dhoni walked off, the scorecard read 30/6. There were still 80 balls left in the innings. There was nobody to blame. First, Dhoni had thrown both the youngsters - N Jagadeesan and Ruturaj Gaikwad into the gauntlet by making them confront Bumrah and Trent Boult. Instead of Jagadeesan, Dhoni should have been the man walking in at No.4. The result might have been the same, but it would have shown ownership and leadership.
It would hurt Dhoni immensely that he couldn't play the anchor role with Curran. Perhaps if he had, Chennai could have posted a score around 150. But the fact is that Dhoni lost his cool, deviated from his game plan and made a batting blunder that we are not accustomed to.
At the end of the match, Dhoni cribbed, "We haven't really won the toss, when we are batting second there hasn't been a lot of dew and when we are batting first all of a sudden there is a lot of dew on the field. So it hasn't gone our way and those are the things you study."
Instead of blaming the conditions and bad luck, Dhoni should have owned up to his mistake. He has faulted the top order batting during the tournament. Perhaps the best way to rectify the issue was for Dhoni to bat up the order. But as we saw last night, deep down Dhoni probably doesn't even have the capacity to bat more than 10 overs.
Having not played a competitive match for a year had clearly affected Dhoni's batting prowess and his mental game. The season might be lost already, but it is time for Dhoni to just bat up the order for rest of the matches and take responsibility on his broad shoulders.