Eye on India: MS Dhoni’s star not as bright with Rising Pune’s poor IPL showing

MS Dhoni's batting form has deserted him just as some of Rising Pune's best players were lost to injury, leaving the Supergiants with no way back into the playoff picture.

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For the first time, MS Dhoni went into the final fortnight of the Indian Premier League (IPL) with only academic interest in the results. In eight previous seasons as captain of Chennai Super Kings, he had made the play-off every time, winning the trophy twice and reaching four other finals.

Now, with the Chennai franchise suspended for two years and at the helm of a new one in Pune, it wasn’t entirely unreasonable to expect that he would enjoy another successful campaign. After all, Rising Pune Supergiants – you’ll have to travel far and wide to find a more ridiculous name for a team – did have a Chennai core. Apart from Dhoni as captain, the squad also contained R Ashwin, Faf du Plessis, Thisara Perera and Albie Morkel, who had all worn Chennai yellow in the past. Stephen Fleming, who had forged such a Butch-and-Sundance combination with Dhoni, was also on board as the coach.

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But after starting with a thumping win away in Mumbai, the wheels came off and the engine seized. A horror run of injuries didn’t help – du Plessis, Kevin Pietersen, Steven Smith and Mitchell Marsh all went home – but there were also far too many pallid displays from those left behind. Unable to play a settled combination and forced to play three home matches in Visakhapatnam because of the drought situation in Maharashtra, Pune never quite managed to figure out their best XI.

One of those under most scrutiny was Ashwin, who seldom completed his quota in the first few matches. It quickly became a chicken-and-egg situation. With no opportunity to stitch together even a mini-spell, Ashwin struggled for rhythm. And with him not taking wickets or being especially restrictive, Dhoni appeared less and less keen to employ him.

Ashwin finished off strongly, with 4 for 34 against Kings XI Punjab, but that was the first time he had taken more than two in an innings this season. His economy rate (7.25) was fine, but there was little doubt that Adam Zampa, the exciting young Australian legspinner, eclipsed him and the other Ashwin, Murugan, when it came to Pune’s spin bowling.

Had his handling of Ashwin been the only issue, Dhoni’s leadership wouldn’t have been under the scanner to such an extent. But with his batting form also deserting him, and some heavy hitters lost to injury, Pune could find no way back into the playoff picture.

The numbers make for grim reading. Before the stunning matchwinning 64 (32 balls) in Pune’s inconsequential final match, six of the IPL’s wicketkeepers had made more runs than Dhoni. Only KL Rahul (Royal Challengers Bangalore) and Quinton de Kock (Delhi Daredevils) averaged more than his 31.42, but what was really surprising was how slowly Dhoni made his runs.

Apart from Parthiv Patel (Mumbai Indians), every other keeper scored at a faster clip over the first 13 games. Dhoni’s strike-rate of 123.59 was way below what he produced in the golden years. As recently as 2013 (162.89) and 2014 (148.40), he had numbers comparable to the best in the business. But since his retirement from Test cricket at the end of 2014, the decline has been downhill-steep.

In the final season with Chennai, Dhoni’s 372 runs came at a strike-rate of 121.96 – more carthorse than cheetah. There has been the odd throwback to the glory days when playing for India, but there have also been dreadful days like the one at Eden Gardens last weekend. In a rain-affected match that Pune lost, Dhoni eked out eight from 22 balls. For the fourth time in a year, Gautam Gambhir – the Kolkata captain who once helped Dhoni win a World Cup – appeared to take the mickey with five men around the bat.

Dhoni has consistently pooh-poohed suggestions that his days as a white-ball specialist are numbered, but with Virat Kohli’s stock – both as batsman and leader – rising by the day, it’ll be interesting to see what the selectors have in mind for the 2017 Champions Trophy.

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