Is this the end, beautiful friend: Has the cricketing world seen the last of Dhoni, the cricketer?

As Chennai got eliminated on Saturday, it could well be the last ever competitive match of the former CSK and India captain.
Former captain of the Indian national team and IPL team CSK, Mahendra Singh Dhoni.
Former captain of the Indian national team and IPL team CSK, Mahendra Singh Dhoni. (Photo| Shashidhar Byrappa)

As Ravindra Jadeja missed an across-the-line swipe off the final ball of the match on Saturday night in the M Chinnaswamy Stadium, the entire Stadium was on its feet. From Church Street to MG Road, celebrations had already begun in the Garden City. Royal Challengers Bengaluru had won six matches on the trot to qualify for the play-offs. In the process, they might have just spoiled (did they?) one of the most anticipated cricketing farewells in the country.

Such was the jubilation of the victory that when MS Dhoni, who might just have played his last ever competitive match, led the CSK entourage onto the field for a handshake, the RCB players were nowhere to be seen. They were all scattered in different corners celebrating in their bubble, cherishing the moment. Dhoni & co. waited briefly before pointing to his captain Ruturaj Gaikwad to lead the team for the handshake.

Post that, walking into the dugout. The last visual of Dhoni was him shaking hands with RCB Director of Cricket, Mo Babat, before getting into the dressing room. No one from the outside saw him from then till the end of the post-match press conference. Is that the last the world saw of Dhoni as an active cricketer? As CSK bowling consultant Eric Simmons would later say: "Anybody who wants to speculate about his future, it’s going to be crazy. MS knows what he is going to do."

Indeed. And yet, at 42 (he will turn 43 in July) and with a mega auction coming up, this entire IPL season seemed like a farewell. His legacy as the most successful captain yet is etched into the history books. He had anointed a successor in Gaikwad. He grew out his hair like the old days. The only time he came to bat was in the death. On occasions, he would promote himself when the game was all but won just so that the fans would be happy.

Which is why, in the lead-up to the contest in Bengaluru, the loyalties were divided. Unlike the previous occasions, Dhoni did not have much choice when he came out to bat. It was the end of the 15th over. Chennai were 129/6, needing 72 runs to qualify from 30 balls (90 to win). They had just lost Mitchell Santner to what was arguably the catch of the tournament from Faf du Plessis. As the South African pulled off a one-handed stunner at mid-off, the entire stadium let out a huge roar. It was a moment of pure cricketing joy. And yet, it seemed momentary as the Chinnaswamy crowd realised what they were about to witness.

Perhaps for the last time in their lives, they were going to watch Dhoni walk out to bat. Almost as if they knew what to do, every single fan stood up with the chants of 'Dhoni, Dhoni'. The mobile flashlights came out as Dhoni took strike. There was no cue from the DJ at the ground, nor was there any momentum with the visitors. And yet, it all came together. Once again, the chants of CSK and Dhoni took over through the 16th over with fans waving their flashlights from the stands.

MS Dhoni named Ruturaj Gaikwad as his successor just before the 2024 IPL season.
MS Dhoni named Ruturaj Gaikwad as his successor just before the 2024 IPL season. (Photo| X/ IPL)

While it has been a trend over the past couple of years, on Saturday, there was a lot at stake. Win and go through. Suffer a relatively heavy defeat and go out. Surely, he would not want that; nor would his partner at the other end — Jadeja. Although Dhoni has not officially said that this would be his last season, it seemed like this could be it. Dhoni hit a four off Cameron Green in the 16th over as CSK collected nine runs. However, that was far from enough.

The required run rate had crept up to 20.25. At this point, the usually vocal Chinnaswamy crowd had gone quiet. Every time Dhoni took strike, there would be a collective 'ooooh', a reaction to the shot. That apart, save for boundaries or wickets, the crowd had been relatively mute. With 50 needed from three overs for Chennai to qualify, everyone knew Dhoni could not do it by himself. He hasn't been that main-act finisher for a while now. Jadeja had to be the protagonist as he was in the IPL final last year. And, once again, he was in the middle of it, bringing the equation down to 17 runs in six balls.

Yash Dayal was at the top of the mark. Dhoni was on strike. Left-arm pacer, Dhoni, Chinnaswamy Stadium, it seemed like a match made in heaven. Even more so when the former CSK captain sent Dayal out of the ground. But it was not to be. A newish ball was taken. Ironically that meant Dayal had a better grip to execute the slower ball. He got it right and Dhoni holed out. Jadeja was in the middle of the pitch, letting out a roar in anguish. From thereon, it was a night of glory for Dayal and agony for CSK.

As much as Dhoni had been associated with pragmatism as a cricketer, when it came to the colours of Chennai, the emotions were always visible. Admittedly, he welled up, soaking in all the love after CSK won the title in Ahmedabad last year. Which is why, despite the feeling that it is over, one can never be sure until an Instagram post or a two-line statement (going by history, do not expect any big send-off).

And if it does come this year, it is fittingly poetic that the quiet ride into the sunset was typical Dhoni. Minutes after the match, he quietly walked away into the dressing room never to be seen again.

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