The Rising Pune Supergiants started the 9th edition of the Indian T20 league under MS Dhoni – at the same stadium the Indian World T20 team had gone down to West Indies a week ago, the Wankhede in Mumbai. This was the first time Dhoni wasn’t captaining a team named Chennai Super Kings in franchise cricket. This was the first time Pune felt good about having their own team – the few years in which the Pune Warriors had joined the Kochi Tuskers as the 9th and 10th teams in this league were, to say the least, underwhelming. They finished last and second-last under captains ranging from Sourav Ganguly and Yuvraj Singh to Angelo Mathews. After all, what could go wrong with Dhoni, Aussie captain Steve Smith, South African T20 captain Faf du Plessis, English “reject” Kevin Pietersen and the upcoming Mitchell Marsh in the same team? Surely, this was a smart outfit – as was evident from their clinical destruction of defending champions Mumbai Indians that night.
Seven games later, the Dhoni-led T20 team has won just one more match. And seven games later, none of Dhoni’s chief overseas players are with him anymore. In what must be the worst outbreak of bad luck during a campaign, a team has lost its entire core halfway through the competition. A heavy, unfit Saurabh Tiwary is now the opener, and only a match after Smith set things alight with a blazing century – his first ever T20 100 – he has returned back to Australia with a wrist injury. That’s about it for Dhoni, who has been trying his best to shield himself from batting by sending all of them above him. He knows he isn’t the finisher he was, and he hoped they were his perfect foil. Now, they’ve foiled his plans for good.
The city must feel a sense of doomed déjà vu – they’re second-to-bottom again, and things only seem to be getting worse, even under the most reliable captain in this format. This is perhaps also an indication of how things would have gone if Chennai Super Kings (CSK) had actually shuffled around their players for those 8 years instead of sticking to the same tried-and-tested core group. Lack of variety for them was a strength, and they won 2 titles, reached 3 finals and went past the group stages every single year. But this time, all Dhoni had from his beloved CSK was R. Ashwin – who suddenly decided to lose form after “that” no-ball in the semifinal of the World T20. Dwayne Bravo, Ravindra Jadeja, Suresh Raina, Dwayne Smith and Brendon McCullum had been snapped up by the smarter newcomers, Gujarat Lions.
Of course, there have been the usual questions about his captaincy. But every time Captain Cool failed in the international arena or went through the worst phases with his test or ODI teams, he had April and May to fall back on. He had this league, and he almost always inspired confidence throughout these two months – especially with the way he understood the consistent formula to be efficient enough to pull through. As of now, his batting order reads: Ajinkya Rahane, Saurabh Tiwary, NLTC Perera, PSP Handscomb, himself and Rajat Bhatia. Earlier, it read: Rahane, Faf, Pietersen, Smith, Perera, himself, Marsh. The team is virtually unrecognizable, and as a result, so is Dhoni. From behind the stumps, he looks a little forlorn as he watches the magic of “mystery” spinner Murugan Ashwin fade away, or the pseudo fierceness of Ashok Dinda rear its head every now and then.
Dhoni’s luck began running out during the World T20 Championship – when everyone except Virat Kohli deserted form and consistency. And a plunge into the depths of “wooden spoon world” even in his favorite comfortable league may finally be the nail in the coffin most of his critics are looking for. His 24 (24) in the final overs against the Mumbai Indians was alarming in the way he hoped and almost prayed that Tiwary would be the big hitter in their partnership. Instead, the heavy Tiwary ran out of breath and fitness too often. And it was left to Dhoni to prove that he doesn’t inspire the kind of confidence he did at one point.
His winning record lay at an astounding 60% in the league before this year. It’s already down to below 59% after this disastrous start to the season, and despite his 137 games as captain, he could well become the only one to win the league (twice) and finish bottom.