There's one predominant sense of fear among Chennai Super Kings fans this season. No, it's not the fear of making it to the play-offs, or whether they'll win another trophy. Those are fleeting concerns, compared to the bigger fear: what will happen to the franchise after MS Dhoni retires?
The genesis of the fears rise from the two games Dhoni missed this year. CSK were thrashed in both the matches, away by Sunrisers Hyderabad and then at home by Mumbai Indians. It wasn't just the defeats or the margin of defeats that was a concern - CSK in general looked lacklustre in Dhoni's absence. Suresh Raina, who had stood in as captain, even pointed to Dhoni's absence as one of the reasons for the loss. Fans, meanwhile, wondered if that was a glimpse into the future.
One only needs to listen to the collective sigh of disappointment in the crowd when they realise at the toss that 'Thala' Dhoni wouldn't feature in the game. CSK are a champion side with multiple match winners, but Dhoni is the crowd puller, the main reason supporters bear the summer heat and other hindrances to watch matches at stadiums. The CSK of initial years had multiple local representation in the likes R Ashwin, M Vijay, S Badrinath and L Balaji; the current side has only Vijay, who too isn't a regular starter. The only other player who has a sizeable fan base is 'Chinna Thala' Raina, but his form and fitness has been on the wane in the last two years.
The 2019 IPL has shown that CSK is all about Dhoni. When he plays, even a practise game draws 12000 people. The performances reflect that too; he is their highest scorer with 405 runs from 10 innings at an average of 135 and strike-rate close to 140. The next best is Raina, who has 364 runs at a strike rate of 126.82, despite batting above Dhoni and playing five more innings. Shane Watson has had a horrific year, while Ambati Rayudu has been poor and Faf du Plessis inconsistent.(Image: Twitter/@ChennaiIPL)
Among all teams, CSK have the worst run rate (6.24) and have lost the most wickets (29) in Power Plays this year. In short, Dhoni has often had to make up for the failures of the top order. He might have even had the opportunity to rest his back a bit more had they been better; Dhoni turned up with flu and a sore back in their home game against Delhi Capitals, and walked away with a Man of the Match performance.
Add to all this the calmness and direction he brings as captain, and not to forget the brilliance as wicket-keeper, and Dhoni becomes perhaps the most valuable player in the tournament.
This season, Dhoni has had to literally carry CSK on his dodgy back. But he'd do that without complaining, for the relationship between him and the franchise, and the city, is one of a kind. The emotional side of Dhoni is seemingly reserved for CSK fans. Him openly admitting he'll miss the franchise after being picked up by Rising Pune Super Giant in 2016. Him choking up while giving a speech in a team event on return to CSK last year.
The emotions extend to the field too. Dhoni punching his helmet after hitting Irfan Pathan for two sixes that put CSK in the IPL 2010 semifinal is one of the big moments in the side's rise. It's also hard to imagine Dhoni walking onto the field to question umpires in an international game, like he did this year in the IPL.(Image: IPL)
His IPL numbers are better than his overall T20I records too; In T20Is Dhoni has 1617 runs from 98 matches with two 50s and a strike-rate of 126.13. In IPL, Dhoni has 4421 runs from 188 matches with 23 50s and a strike-rate of 138.24. Clearly, playing for CSK means a lot to Dhoni.
But at 37 years of age, Dhoni is on his last legs. It's widely speculated that the World Cup will be his last appearance in international cricket, which could mean the IPL will be the only tournament he plays. How long that continues, and how effective he will be without much cricket, remains to be seen.
From the signals this season, the post-Dhoni era doesn't look too bright for CSK. It doesn't help that the others in the side aren't too young either. But it's also unlikely that Dhoni will leave immediately, given his love for the franchise. Now that he's there, and what's potentially in store for the future, this could be one of CSK's best chances to add another trophy to their cabinet.