The world stands divided on MS Dhoni’s future with Chennai Super Kings (CSK). While one half finds it best for him to recognise his diminishing batting abilities and bid farewell on a happy note having just won his fourth IPL title, the other half believes he should continue at least for one more season and end his rich CSK association in front of home fans.
Dhoni himself, as always, has chosen to keep his cards close to the chest. At one point during his post-match presentation speech after the final in Dubai, he said the retention is not about him but what would serve CSK well over the next decade. But then in a cheeky way, kept all ends open, saying “still I haven’t left behind..”.
There is no certainty whether fans will get to witness the legend for one more year in the CSK jersey or not. Expectedly, if the ball is purely in CSK’s court, the franchise would want to retain him for his still-excellent captaincy credentials and a sentimental reason, considering his passionate fan following as an adopted Chennai son.
If one were to keep the emotions aside, though, Dhoni undoubtedly has a weak case for retention. He has batted at a strike-rate of only 112.54 while averaging 20.93 since the start of IPL 2020. The record was even worse in IPL 2021 where the 40-year-old made 114 runs over 11 innings at a strike-rate of just 106.54.
In playing a pivotal cameo in qualifier 1 against the Delhi Capitals (DC), Dhoni rewinded the clock and infused a great sense of nostalgia for his fans. But to base a futuristic decision of such great importance and influence on one knock alone would be a very risky call from the CSK think-tank.
They’ll have to decide if they can compromise with MS Dhoni on the batting front while receiving all the benefits of his captaincy and giving him a farewell in Chennai. Or, in a tough but shrewd call, let go of the man whose batting returns have been on the wane and retain only those who will be able to keep Dhoni and CSK’s great legacy going.
CSK can’t have it both ways with MS Dhoni, or could they?
In a simplistic sense, CSK can’t have it two ways. They can’t stick to MS Dhoni and also make sure that their transition is smooth, with a competitive squad in place, capable of winning more titles in the future since retaining Dhoni would mean a significant cut in their purse ahead of the next year’s auction. The last thing even Dhoni would want is to become a reason why CSK approach the next three-year cycle as a weaker unit.
However, there is one other way. And while this involves risk, chances are that CSK would be able to ultimately keep Dhoni with them while also rebuilding a quality squad. This case involves letting Dhoni go back into the auction pool and regaining him at a significantly lesser amount.
CSK could look to – with Dhoni’s willingness, of course – play a trick where even though they initially release their legendary skipper, they bid for him at the auction and fetch him back at a more bargained price.
Now, as mentioned, this strategy involves risk because Dhoni, being a cricketer of remarkable popularity and brand value, would also be an enticing option for other franchises. Dhoni playing his last IPL season for another franchise could be a game-changer in terms of brands and sponsors for say a Punjab Kings (PBKS) or a Rajasthan Royals (RR), and even Sunrisers Hyderabad (SRH). So it may seem certain that they would go after him and make it tougher for CSK to pick or RTM Dhoni back.
But the IPL is also no more at a nascent stage where teams were often guilty of prioritising the brand value of their picks rather than the cricketing merit. CSK would know that picking Dhoni at this stage of his career – with a decisive mega auction ahead – is just as much a double-edged sword for other teams as it is for them to keep him intact.
Teams may find it an attractive option to go after Dhoni and in turn, make them a more attractive option for sponsors in the short term. But to think long-term, bringing Dhoni in is going to cost them a huge dent in the purse and with it, the likelihood of affecting their entire balance and combination in the years ahead.
This is how CSK can expect to keep Dhoni even if they release him and that too without ruining their succession plan. This is risky, but the only way CSK can maintain a fine balance between sentiments and cricketing merit.