There were moments in the IPL 2023 final, tiny windows in time that sent contrasting signals about Mahendra Singh Dhoni's future. All season the debate about the Chennai Super Kings skipper has raged — will this be his last season or will he simply play on… seeking a goal only he knows.
The first of these moments arrived a little after CSK had made a sloppy start to the final. They had given Shubman Gill, the man who had taken his batting to new heights this season and the holder of the Orange Cap, a life in the early going. And the GT opener had started to find his range, reaching 39 off 19 balls.
But with the last ball off the seventh over, Ravindra Jadeja bowled a flatter and fuller delivery that turned enough to beat the right-hander's bat. It sneaked past the edge and into the gloves of the CSK skipper, who whipped off the bails without a moment's delay.
It was a close affair. Jadeja wasn't quite sure. Neither was Gill. But Dhoni knew; he knew because he had collected the ball, just after it had passed the stumps and disturbed the bails in the same action. As television replays later showed, his reaction time was just 0.1 seconds. It was a stumping that Dhoni has perfected over the years, and one that perhaps only he has mastered.
And this was coming from a player who hasn't done any wicket-keeping practice all season. As CSK coach Stephen Fleming later revealed: "MS Dhoni hasn't done any wicket-keeping practice during this IPL, it's all natural, today was just awesome, especially the stumping was MS Dhoni at his best, it's not trained, it's natural and skill."
At the same time, it seemed to signal that Dhoni still had a lot left in his tank. He wasn't done.
GT, however, were in no mood to make things easy for the man who has defined his club and perhaps the league as well. They continued to pile on the quick runs and reached 214/4 at the end of their 20 overs.
That would be a big total in any match, let alone a final. The pressure adds a few to the total but that exactly is what CSK have thrived on all these years. Dhoni seems to have an innate ability to shrug off pressure; a few deep breaths and he finds an inner balance. His calm has, somehow, always transferred to his teams as well.
When the rain came down just after three balls in the CSK innings, GT coach Ashish Nehra and skipper Hardik Pandya were all over the place. CSK, though, only sent out coach Fleming. The rest of the players in the yellow jerseys sat in their dugout. Waiting. Hoping. Breathing.
Then, the rain stopped and the target was decided — 171 in 15 overs. CSK had all their wickets in hand but in such a situation, panic could easily set in. It didn't.
Ruturaj Gaikwad and Devon Conway gave CSK a blazing start — they reached 74 in 6.2 overs before the former was dismissed. Shivam Dube walked in next and struggled to find his timing right initially. The power shots were going nowhere.
But the runs kept coming. Ajinkya Rahane (27 off 13) played a mini classic, including a wonderful check drive that went for six straight down the ground . Ambati Rayudu, in his last IPL match, weighed in with 19 off 8 balls.
It all seemed to be setting things up for their skipper. Dhoni in a chase, another legend in the making, another six to finish the match? There were so many thoughts as he walked out to bat. Would he? Could he?
CSK needed 22 off 14 balls as he made his way to the middle. The only thing that accompanied him to the middle was an incredible amount of noise. The crowd going absolutely nuts. Of course, he had heard it all before but still…
But even before the noise could die down, Dhoni was walking back. He was caught at extra cover. Mohit Sharma, former CSK player, had got him. A golden duck in his final match? It was a moment that seemed to say so much and leave as much hanging in the air. This, surely, wasn't in the script.
It seemed to be going downhill for CSK after that until the equation finally became 10 runs needed off 2 balls. Jadeja pulled a special one out of the hat to seal the most special of title wins for CSK.
As Jadeja hit the four off the last ball to win the match, CSK players seemed to explode off the bench and race towards the middle. The camera, just for a few seconds, panned onto Dhoni who was still sitting in the dugout, calmness personified. He's always been 'Captain Cool' but was this another sign? Is this it?
A little later, he joined the celebrations, lifting Jadeja in a bear hug but was the calm just Dhoni being Dhoni, or was something else coming our way?
At the end of the rollercoaster ride, many thought Dhoni might throw one more twist into the mix. But the CSK skipper, who became the oldest player (at 41 years and 327 days) to win the IPL title, simply took a deep breath and opened up in the post-match chat:
"If you circumstantially see, it's the best time to announce the retirement," said Dhoni. "The easy thing for me to say is thank you and retire. But the hard thing to do is to work hard for nine months and try to play one more IPL season. The body has to hold up."
Dhoni added: "But the amount of love I have received from CSK fans, it would be a gift for them to play one more season. The way they've shown their love and emotion, it's something I need to do for them. It's the last part of my career. It started over here and the full house was chanting my name. It was my same thing in Chennai, but it will be good to come back and play whatever I can."
So, for the moment, Dhoni's still standing. We don't know for how long. But perhaps it's best to not ponder over that for too long and just enjoy the moment as it is meant to be.