Thalaiva is back,' screamed the brightly lit neon screen inside the M A Chidambaram stadium in downtown Chennai as Mahendra Singh Dhoni aka the Captain Cool walked out to bat in a rather difficult situation for his team Chennai Super Kings (CSK) against Kolkata Knight Riders (KKR).
The situation for CSK was grim as the men in yellow had to face a run rate of over 10 an over and had lost two in-form batsmen -- Ambati Rayudu and Shane Watson. Dhoni's cool and icy demeanour gave a big boost to the confidence of Englishman Sam Billings who, in his skipper’s company, tore into the KKR attack and managed to pip them at the post in another thriller won by the southern giants that had returned to the Indian Premier League (IPL) after a hiatus of two years.
In many ways, Dhoni, accepted by Chennai fans as the Thailava (the boss) now, gave a fitting riposte to political parties (including the celluloid demigod with the same sobriquet) who wanted IPL to be shifted out of Chennai as a protest against the Cauvery water dispute.
The cricketing Thailaiva's response not withstanding, the political populists won over popular will taking the rest of the tournament away from its citadel -- a sad state of affairs for CSK fans who had waited for two years to watch their favourite team in their own city.
In a way, regardless of performances, the first week belonged to the former India captain who seems to have started in the same vein as he'd left two years ago. For someone who's place in the team in the short formats of the game was questioned by critics in the recent past, Dhoni's handling of his team in two matches was exemplary.
Stepping into the Wankhede Stadium to play holders Mumbai Indians (MI) in the premier show of the eleventh edition of the Indian Premier League was akin to Superman stepping on planet Krypton and coming out unscathed; well…almost!
The radioactive chants and total support by the fans for the men in blue were quickly negated by an experienced warrior aptly named Bravo. The West Indian came out full of antidote and pulled the rug from beneath the feet of the blue warriors with an innings of a lifetime.
A similar scenario arose a few days later when Billings was given a swig of the invincible potion by druid Dhoni to scythe through the KKR attack and attain victory from an almost lost situation. Billings' statement after the match, that it was impossible for Dhoni's calmness not to rub on to himself, is a testimony of the role played by the captain.
While on captaincy, it was interesting to watch the strategies (and body language) employed by the leaders during the first round of the game. While it is a bit early to form judgments on the various captains and their teams as the tournament is in it's teething stage for now, the initial games did give an indication of how the teams are trying to come up with the right combinations and finding the correct balance.
CSK's back-to-back wins over two strong teams -- MI and KKR -- have certainly given them the pole position at the start of the tournament but MSD and team will realise that both matches could have gone either way. Rohit Sharma and Dinesh Kartik will probably be on the discussion table trying to figure out the right bowling combination, especially in the death overs.
Once again, as predicted, the men have continued to be thorns in the flesh of rampaging batsmen. It was a revelation to see MI's Mayank Markande who snapped three wickets with his guile. The young Punjab bowler has been touted as the next spinner to watch out for and Sharma has lots of hope on this fast bowler-turned-wrist spinner as the tournament progresses. The other bowler to impress on his debut for Rajasthan Royals was Afghan Mujeeb Ur Rahman, who snared two wickets in an impressive spell.
Right now, these newbies are relatively unknown -- which makes it difficult for the batsmen to read them. Their true worth will be known as the tournament progresses and every part of their action is analysed and cut threadbare for batsmen to play them better and look for scoring opportunities. Markande and Mujeeb could well take a leaf out of the books of Yuzvendra Chahal, Sunil Narine or from veteran Ravichandran Ashwin who has now added leg-spin to his armoury!
The shift from Chidambaram stadium, Chennai to another venue -- Pune (as we're given to understand) will put CSK a step back, after taking two steps forward. Dhoni's experience at Gahunje with the Pune franchise, during the two-year hiatus, will hold him in good stead to continue guiding his team to keep giving top class performances.
With the combination and balance almost in place, the Thalaiva will have to ensure his troops don't peak too early in the tournament.
(The writer is former Bombay University opener and captain of the Cricket Club of India)