Dhoni rolls back the years to take CSK into final after Gaikwad-Uthappa take Capitals to cleaners

Grandmaster of end-game finishes match after middle-game masters set it up

A script of (Arabian) dreams unfolded as MS Dhoni sealed the match with a throwback 18 off six balls, to hunt down the target of 173 runs Delhi Capitals set Chennai Super Kings with two balls to spare and take his team into another Indian Premier League final. There was a spate of half-centuries —Ruturaj Gaikwad’s 70, Robin Uthappa’s 63, Prithvi Shaw’s 60, and Rishabh Pant’s 51 not out — but all that would be remembered from the match would be Dhoni’s 18, as it often happens when he stays till the end.

Grandmaster of end-game

The rumours of Dhoni’s waning finishing prowess seem grossly exaggerated, on Sunday’s evidence. The validation came in a brief but vivid knock of 18 off six balls. Do not forget to suffix the not-out asterisk. For the zillionth time in his career, Dhoni finished off a match, a contest that Chennai Super Kings should have perhaps won before his interference. But never mind, everybody likes the Dhoni theatre.

When he strode in, surprisingly ahead of the in-form Ravindra Jadeja, a few frowns and scowls accompanied him to the crease at the fall of Ruturaj Gaikwad for a purring 70. The requirement had blown to 24 off 12 balls. A near-canter by peak Dhoni standards, but not quite as straightforward these days. How wrong we were in (mis)judging him, he was to prove.

Avesh Khan beats him with a fullish slower ball first up. The second ball is pulled back a bit, and Dhoni hops back to his back-foot, shuffling in a trice, and bludgeons it over deep mid-wicket. The sparsely-populated stadium goes delirious.

A dot ball, then the wicket of Moeen Ali, and CSK were tasked to knock down 13 off five balls. No problem. The first ball he faced off Tom Curran is slapped over extra cover, Dhoni waiting for the ball and pummelling it. A fortuitous bottom edge that rolled to the fine-leg fence hacks the target down to five off three balls. A wide reduces it to four. And inevitably, Dhoni wraps the match with a pulled four.

The match though was set up by Gaikwad and Robin Uthappa. The latter rolled back the years to state that he is not a spent force. Though his big-stroking prowess had seemingly declined, a far cry from his heady Kolkata Knight Riders days, he illustrated that he still has the strokes and the drive to win games, that there’s still some wind left in him to blow bowlers over.

Most batsmen become less risk-averse as they get older, cutting out some of their strokes, adding more sophistry and world-wisdom into their game. But not Uthappa. At 35, at the fag end of his career, he seems as buoyant a batsman as he was when he broke out with a whirlwind half-century against England in an ODI in 2006. Age and experience have not diminished his exuberance. No shot of his on Sunday exemplified that more than the six off Avesh Khan. He shuffled across and whipped it over long-on with a clean-swing of the bat.

Gaikwad, on the other hand, is the rising star, or a star that has already risen. Their 110-run alliance laid the foundation, before Dhoni imparted the finishing touches.

Middle-over choke

The middle-over choke has been an age-old CSK theme, one of the strategic blocks that hold their robust high-riser. It could be a prosaic ploy – stifling batsmen with fast spinners and slow pacers, bowling to defensive fields. One can’t fish out the name of a tearaway or a big-turning spinner they ever had, the kind that smashes headlines in auctions.

But what they possess is a group of bowlers who are arguably the best in the middle overs. Like Moeen Ali and Ravindra Jadeja managed against a rampaging Delhi Capitals. The latter came on with Prithvi Shaw in a belligerent mood. Jadeja did concede nine runs — Axar Patel sweeping him after being sent in as pinch-hitter — but there was a sense of foreboding that runs would dry up. And dry up they did — in the next five overs, they conceded only 30 runs and nabbed two wickets, including that of the thundering Shaw.

There is no rocket science about how they bowl. There is no mystery or mystique about them. They flourish on the old-fashioned virtues of precision, discipline and diligence, maximising the best of their variations. Not just the stitched-to-fit spinners, but their medium pacers too are cut off the same cloth. None of Deepak Chahar, Dwayne Bravo and Shardul Thakur are exuberant to test the durability of the speed gun. They get their kicks from experimenting with the seam of the ball and changing the pace. They don’t bother to batter the batter’s toes or rattle their helmets; all they want is to eke out a dot ball, prevent a boundary, in the process heckling a wicket or two. Their middle-overs control gave CSK the grip over the match.

Even their new-ball operator Josh Hazlewood is not the archetypal T20 bowler, with pace and tricks. CSK’s is the classic case of not falling for cliches, but charting a path of their own.

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