The Chennai Super Kings were chasing 217 against the Rajasthan Royals. They didn't get off to a good start. Everyone kept waiting for MS Dhoni to arrive but he sent Sam Curran in as a pinch-hitter, and then debutant Ruturaj Gaikwad.
If that wasn't enough, Dhoni didn't walk in to bat even when Rahul Tewatia was on a hat-trick; Kedar Jadhav was sent out instead. Eventually, when Dhoni did come out, the match was all but lost. The asking rate had skyrocketed, and even though Faf du Plessis kept going, Dhoni wasn't able to contribute much in that partnership.
Chennai went down without a proper fight, some would argue. Gautam Gambhir, one who isn't known to mince words on all matters Dhoni, said that you can't lead from the front when you keep demoting yourself when chasing a huge total. While you can't argue with that assessment, the fact is that Dhoni's leadership style isn't the same as that of many captains.
In fact, his idea of leadership isn't about leading from the front all. He built his legacy as a captain, at least in franchise cricket, by pushing others ahead of him. And even in his heyday, he would go in only when things started to go pear-shaped. And he was able to rescue quite a few such missions. Of course, it didn't happen against Rajasthan, but in the game before, against Mumbai, Dhoni promoted Curran and it turned out to be a master stroke in the end.
Dhoni's biggest strength as captain of CSK has been his ability to focus on the big picture of the entire campaign, as opposed to getting caught up in the details of one league game. That is why in the first game of the season, he picks an XI that in his head is near-perfect, and sticks to the same personnel for as long as possible. Almost every other captain in the IPL would have benched Shane Watson halfway through the last IPL but Dhoni persisted, and it paid dividends.
And that's just one of many examples of him focusing on the big picture. But let's go back to the possible reasons for Dhoni not coming out to bat earlier in the first two games of this season. In the first game, he first chose to use Ravindra Jadeja's improved batting, and then, since Krunal Pandya was bowling, sent Curran in. But it wasn't just about Jadeja's form and the potential efficacy of a left-hand striker against the left-arm spin of Pandya. It was also about the fact that Dhoni hadn't played competitive cricket in 14 months. After the game against Rajasthan, he admitted that he was rusty. The long layoff, followed by the long quarantine did not help his cause as a batsman. What it tells me about Dhoni is that he is a realist, for he is the first to admit that his lack of confidence in his batting abilities played a part in the making of those crucial decisions. There's a thin line between bravado and foolishness, and also a thin line that separates caution and fear.
There was a time when Dhoni used Deepak Chahar to primarily bowl with the new ball, and no matter how good his day had been, Chahar would finish his quota of overs by the 12th over. Three overs with the new ball and one in the middle overs. Then, gradually, Dhoni started to push that fourth over of Chahar's spell deeper into the innings, having him finish his quota by the 14th or 15th over, or letting him bowl only three overs in the game. This led to Chahar asking Dhoni about why he didn't trust him with the death overs. Chahar himself felt he was ready. Dhoni said, "I groom players."
Gambhir: MS Dhoni batting at No. 7 makes no sense
Gambhir believes MS Dhoni should have been leading from the front in the chase
Dhoni's grand plan was to gradually take Chahar to a point where he was 100% ready to bowl at the death, instead of rushing him in when he was undercooked, and later having to correct course. Now this might not be a foolproof method to groom cricketers for a national team, but it's likely to yield results in franchise cricket, where you play a minimum of 14 games every season.
I think the idea of demoting himself in the first two games was not to shy away from the responsibilities of a leader but to give Chennai the best shot at winning the game. Dhoni felt that he wasn't ready to bring the team home and chose not to let ego come in the way of a pragmatic decision. He started this tournament with no form whatsoever and has now worked himself into some kind of form with the three sixes in the final over against the Royals. As the matches shift to venues where scores in excess of 200 won't come about too often, Dhoni might quietly start fitting himself into places in the batting order from where he will be able to make significant contributions to wins.
I'm still expecting him to take a few balls to get his eye in every time he walks out to bat, and to then pick his prey judiciously. In the IPL, every team has a weak link that can be exposed.
Those who argue that if Dhoni isn't ready to win matches he shouldn't be playing in the XI fail to understand that his long-standing and successful philosophy in the IPL isn't built around winning every game that the team plays. He understands that you have to stitch only eight wins together to make it to the final four, and after that it's about the experience of performing on the big nights. That's why it's not surprising that he fills his team with experienced players over runaway match-winners. It's not that he's averse to making changes to his plans, but he understands that making too many changes either too soon or too often leads to chaos.
One such change has been the departure from his preference of having six or seven bowling options, but since it's the start of a new tournament and considering that most of his batsmen have been in hibernation, he realised that the batting needs more of a cushion than the bowling. Dhoni's mantra is to be calm in chaos. One loss in the first week of the IPL isn't going to force him to shelve that philosophy.