IPL 2017: MS Dhoni no longer the destroyer of attacks but his contribution remains undiminished

He may wear the purple of Pune Supergiant but few there have truly embraced him as one of their own. Dhoni will surely be back in the yellow of Chennai Super Kings next season.

Rising Pune Supergiant captain Steve Smith, left, confers with wicketkeeper MS Dhoni during the Indian Premier league First Qualifier against Mumbai Indians at Wankhede Stadium in Mumbai, India, on May 16, 2017. Indranil Mukherjee / AFP
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It doesn’t take an opportunist very long to spot which way the wind is blowing. When the history of the first decade of the Indian Premier League (IPL) is written, a couple of tweets from Harsh Goenka, brother of the Rising Pune Supergiant owner, could well find a place.

After they had beaten Mumbai Indians in their opening game of 2017, he tweeted: “#RPSvMI Smith proves who’s the king of the jungle. Overshadows Dhoni totally. Captains [sic] innings. Great move to appoint him as captain.”

Five weeks on, the two teams met again, with a place in the final at stake. This time, Smith made one. Dhoni blasted 40 from 26 balls, inclusive of five sixes, to take Pune to a total that proved beyond even the power-packed Mumbai line-up.

This time, Goenka was singing in praise. “Explosive batting by Dhoni, deceitful bowling by Sundar and great captaincy by Smith takes #RPS to the #IPL finals.”

Explosive batting by Dhoni, deceitful bowling by Sundar and great captaincy by Smith takes #RPS to the #IPL finals. pic.twitter.com/TFCZfC0YrH

Apart from the fact that there is nothing deceitful about poor Washington Sundar, all of 17 and fresh off his first season in first-class cricket, the Goenka outbursts have come to be seen as a cricketing equivalent of Alan Hansen’s now-mocked You’ll-win-nothing-with-kids line about Alex Ferguson’s remodelled 1996/97 Manchester United squad.

Hansen, however, is a bona fide legend, and an astute thinker on the game. Goenka, like so many others involved with IPL franchises, has no pretensions to being either.

It is not as though Indian cricket fans needed an attention seeker to tell them that Dhoni’s powers are on the wane. Dhoni will be 36 in July, and has not been an all-format regular for India since December 2014.

With India playing a whopping 17 Tests between July 2016 and the start of the IPL, he has had precious little game time in the white-ball formats. Domestic cricket, no matter what his commitment to Jharkhand, is nowhere near as challenging.

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The Mumbai cameo, as well as a couple of others earlier in the season as Pune recovered from a horrid 1-3 losing start, cannot camouflage the fact that he is not the fearsome prospect of old. Peak Dhoni, the one the IPL saw in 2011 (392 runs in 247 balls) and 2013 (461 off 283), was a destroyer of attacks. Dhoni circa 2017 bides his time before reaching back to the old catalogue. His numbers, 280 runs off 237 balls, suggest a man cast in a very different role.

This is definitely Steve Smith’s team, though Dhoni remains an influential presence behind the stumps. In other ways though, it is Chennai Super Kings Mark II, with Stephen Fleming masterminding strategy in the dugout. For Dhoni, it will be a seventh IPL final. For Fleming, who stepped into the Chennai coaching role in 2009 before taking the Pune role in 2016, it will be a sixth.

Pune have timed their surge to the final without Ravichandran Ashwin for the entire season, and with Ben Stokes missing the business end of the tournament. If they do go on to win, and they are the competition’s form team with nine wins in their past 11 matches, it will create quite the conundrum for the IPL’s Governing Council.

When the two new franchises, Pune and Gujarat Lions, were introduced ahead of the 2016 IPL season, it was made quite clear that it was a stopgap arrangement, and that Chennai and Rajasthan Royals, both banned for two seasons for their part in the 2013 spot-fixing scandal, could return in time for the 2018 season.

It is not as though an IPL champion side has not vanished in the past. Deccan Chargers won the tournament when it was held in South Africa in 2009. They folded in 2012, with Sunrisers Hyderabad taking their place the following season. The interesting thing here is the fact that at least a couple of franchises have been looking to sell up for a while now. With the 10-year race run, it is not inconceivable that one could drop out, allowing Pune – albeit on renegotiated franchise fees – to be back next season.

Even in the unlikely event that such a thing did happen, it is almost certain that Dhoni will not be wearing the purple again.

His legion of admirers in Chennai are already counting down the days for his return from exile.

Watch for:

A Malinga special

If you go by the raw numbers, this has been the worst season of a storied and record-breaking IPL career – 10 wickets in 10 matches, and an economy rate of 9.10. But Malinga was superb in the loss to Pune, and on a Bangalore pitch that is far less bat-friendly than in previous seasons, neither Hyderabad nor Kolkata will be taking him lightly. The yorkers are starting to land, and he remains a skiddy menace.

Warner’s distraction

Barring a remarkable run spree from one of those trailing way behind his slipstream, David Warner will finish as the competition's leading run-scorer. This stop-start campaign – Hyderabad were as awesome at home as they were inept away – has seen Warner at his most focused, despite the fires burning back home. He has been one of the more vocal players in the standoff with Cricket Australia over a new payment structure, and his 604 runs have not hurt his prospects of a bumper IPL payday in 2018 should the impasse over the players wanting a fixed percentage of board revenue have a bad outcome.

The absence of the window

In its early years, the IPL authorities never pushed for a window that would allow players from all countries to play without having to pack up midway citing international commitments. Now, they are realising just how much those absences can diminish the event. Apart from Stokes, Pune are missing Imran Tahir, while Kolkata Knight Riders had to let go of Chris Woakes after he had played 13 games. England pair Stokes and Woakes are at a pre-series camp in Spain this week, and while Kevin Pietersen’s rant was over the top, it’s clear that something will have to give when contracts worth hundreds of millions of Rupees are involved.

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