When Shivam Dube holed out to long off, CSK needed an unlikely 72 off 24 to win a game that seemed headed in only one direction. The result was not entirely a foregone conclusion, but knocking off at 18 runs an over is not a cakewalk even by the modern-day batting standards. There was simply too much left to be done in too little time. The game eventually ended up venturing into the same direction it seemed headed in some time back: the Capitals won; the Super Kings lost.

But it was in these 24 balls magic transpired. 

Dube’s departure was met with rapturous applause. But you were mistaken if you felt it was because the “home team” – it was, at least on paper – struck and advanced towards opening their account. It was also not in jubilation for Mukesh Kumar, whose canny slower one outfoxed and undid one of the opponent’s main hitters. 

It was to welcome the man the crowd had paid for and prayed for to watch. It was to welcome MS Dhoni. This was when Dhoni was yet to even face a ball. Yet to hit any of the bludgeoning strokes he would go onto play on the night. But that is the kind of status he enjoys: just a gentle stroll towards the middle is enough to summon the loudest cheers.

Also read: Chennai Super Kings always play their IPL matches on home grounds: Khaleel Ahmed

It was the same venue where Dhoni had announced his arrival nearly two decades ago with a knock for the ages. And here he was at it again, trying his hand for the umpteenth time at a thing he had accomplished umpteen times. All his idiosyncrasies were at the fore: the angular rotation of the shoulders, the constant unstrapping and strapping of the gloves, the heavy thuds of the willow on the pitch and the unmistakable scans of the field. For old time’s sake, even the long hair is back.

Dhoni rocked on the back foot and whacked his maiden ball of IPL 2024 through backward square for four and scythed his third through covers for another four. It could well have been the most agonising anticlimax had Khaleel Ahmed not shelled a chance at backward point in between. And it was Khaleel who paid the biggest price with Dhoni butchering him mercilessly only moments later.

Khaleel wanted to keep the ball outside Dhoni’s hitting arc, attempting to deliver wide outside the off stump from over the wicket. He ended up bowling successive wides in the 18th, the same over which saw the most breathtaking shots on the night. On the fifth legitimate ball of the over, Khaleel went full and wide once again, only for Dhoni to sit on his knee and cover-drive it for a maximum. It is a shot Dhoni is not known to play. But he showed there were unexplored facets to his game even at 42.

That Dhoni switched to the fifth gear with no professional cricket behind him in almost a year gone by, and on a track at which even some of the cleanest strikers like Ravindra, Dube and Marsh struggled to find momentum, only reinforced his batting genius.     

The best of him came in the final over against Anrich Nortje in a 20-run over, which included a rocketed pummel through the covers for four, a one-handed swipe for six over deep midwicket, a brutal down-the-ground four past mid-on and another maximum over extra cover. So mesmerising was the onslaught, one needed a reminder CSK had lost the game. Dhoni had simply transcended the binary of win and loss.

***

A few hours before Dhoni’s stunning, undefeated 16-ball 37 lit up Vizag, another one of India’s favourite sons, Rishabh Pant, gave his countrymen a cause to celebrate. Pant had scored 15 half-centuries in the IPL before the 32-ball 51 on March 31, but perhaps none would have given him the sense of calm, belief and pride like the 16th.

Having survived a near-fatal car crash in December 2022, Pant has gradually attuned himself to the rigours of competitive cricket. In the time that lapsed in between, he had multiple ligament reconstructions, consumed innumerable painkillers, laboured through varying degrees of pain (both physical and mental), undergone countless hours of rehabilitation and used every ounce of willpower and self-belief in his system to expedite the recovery to the extent of returning to the cricket field in just a little over 15 months. Given the gravity of his injuries, it is just indeed.

Pant had his moments against Punjab Kings and Rajasthan Royals too. But if the first two encounters upon his return were baby steps, the third one felt like a bigger stride towards cricketing normalcy; towards the Pant of the old. A misnomer it may sound for someone only 26 but the prodigious talent he is, Pant has already built that kind of a reputation in his short career. 

There was an element of struggle to begin with as he cantered at a run-a-ball until 23 batting at No. 3, but it was the urgency shown towards the closing phase of the Capitals’ outing that made Pant’s knock an innings of two halves. The slog sweep against Ravindra Jadeja for a six over midwicket was his only boundary in the first 19 balls. However, once he geared up for a turnaround, he made up for all the time lost.

The fact Pant succeeded in dominating Mustafizur Rahman and Matheesha Pathirana, two of the niftiest death-over operators, only added a special touch to his effort. When Mustafizur dug one into the pitch, Pant swivel-pulled him towards square leg for four. When he went a tad fuller, Pant brought out his trademark one-handed swipe to pick a six in the same region. In the subsequent over, Pathirana, whose searing in-swinging yorkers had uprooted Mitchell Marsh and Tristian Stubbs’ stumps not too long ago, was mishandled as Pant went 6, 4, 4, with his force on full display. 

Pathirana darted in a yorker but missed his mark by just enough for Pant to get underneath the ball and lift it over long-on for a six. He committed the same error to be carted in the same region for another boundary on the next ball in what was another classic case of stand-and-deliver: bare minimum foot movement and only brute force. The next shot – a slice past point for four – brought up his half-century off 31 balls. 

Also read: ‘Kept believing I could change the match’ – Rishabh Pant after first fifty since comeback

Not content with 14 off his last three, Pant played a shot too many as he perished on the next ball, trying to smash one down the ground but only skying it to Gaikwad at long-on. But that was not before he blazed from 23 off 23 to 52 off 31, helping Capitals to notch up a total that would prove beyond CSK’s reach despite a Dhoni classic.

Dhoni dazzled. Pant pulverized. It was a day when the result had no significance. Everyone got more than what they wanted.

#Dhoni #Pant #give #day #remember

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