Chennai Super Kings, and the twilight of a dynasty

The Chennai Super Kings built their franchise around one player. But has the MS Dhoni dynasty run its course?

In Any given Sunday, one of the most iconic sports dramas of all time, Al Pacino tells his beleaguered team ‘You find out that life is just a game of inches’.

Chennai found that out that life indeed is a game of inches on one of the biggest stages of all – the IPL finals.

The Chennai Super Kings lost the finals by inches. By one run when Lasith Malinga got a wicket off the last ball and by an inch when Dhoni ran himself out by going for a second run on an overthrow.

Of all the teams in the history of the IPL, the Chennai Super Kings have been the most consistent, accumulated the most rabid fan base and been captained by MS Dhoni, one of the most popular cricketers in the country after the god-like Sachin Tendulkar. In some way, the franchise is an extension of the drama that the state of Tamil Nadu sees in its politics and cinema.

To understand why Chennai has been so successful as a franchise, one must realize that it is one of the few teams that is run by owners who have been instrumental in setting up a cricket culture in Tamil Nadu. While owners like Vijay Mallya, Priety Zinta and Shah Rukh Khan bought teams to probably inflate their already inflated egos and few owners ran their teams like their personal property, N Srininivasan, the MD of India Cements, the conglomerate that owns Chennai Super Kings and once the most powerful man in world cricket, gave the reins of the team to the talismanic MS Dhoni and didn’t interfere much.

Once the most powerful man in world cricket, N Srinivasan is seemingly plotting his comeback to cricket administration behind the scenes.

N Srinivasan or Srini mama as he is fondly called might go down in history as one of the few sports administrators who genuinely kept the players’ interests in mind. It was under his stewardship that the BCCI gave past cricketers’ a generous one-time payment and also instituted a pension scheme that included widows of cricketers’.

But Srinivasan is no saint.

At the peak of his powers, he ran the BCCI with an iron fist. He amended the rules that allowed a board member to also own a franchise, being one of the original culprits of the conflict of interest problem that has come to haunt cricket ever since. He was accused of tweaking the auction to buy Andrew Flintoff in the third season of the IPL and when the selectors wanted Dhoni to step down as test captain in 2012 after consecutive whitewashes against England and Australia, N Srinivasan allegedly stonewalled any such efforts. His lowest moment came when his son-in-law was accused of betting and the franchise was banned for two years from the league along with the Rajasthan Royals. Srinivasan’s reign as cricket’s overlord also ended in controversial circumstances when he was removed as ICC Chairman in 2015.

This Jekyll and Hyde personality, taking care of cricketers’ on one hand and abusing his power on the other, may have been one reason why many voices, usually upright and outspoken, did not speak out against him when controversies got the better of him. Past greats like Kapil Dev, Sunil Gavaskar, Rahul Dravid, and Anil Kumble have openly come out in their support of Srinivasan and the contribution he has made to the game, ignoring his numerous other ill-fated moves. Now, in any CSK match, whenever the camera pans toward the stands, there is no sign of team owners. Just the players’ wives and rabid fans. The ownership has made a cosmetic change with the team now being owned by Chennai Super Kings ltd., a subsidiary of India Cements.

N Srinivasan, much to the dismay of his detractors, has not left the building.

The Chennai Super Kings have enjoyed unrivaled fan support over the years

Franchise loyalty is a fickle mistress. Very few players have journeyed through their IPL careers without changing their franchises over the course of time. Virat Kohli might have played all seasons for the Royal Challengers Bangalore but he hasn’t tasted the success nor built a fan base like Dhoni.

For a format that puts youth on a pedestal, CSK’s stars are on their last legs.

MS Dhoni is 38.

Harbhajan Singh is 38.

Shane Watson is 37.

Imran Tahir is 40.

Dwayne Bravo is 36.

Suresh Raina, the second highest scorer in IPL history, is no longer a regular on the international side and his fitness levels leave a lot to be desired. Once one of the best fielders in the side, he dropped catches and looked sluggish. While Dhoni was in the form of his life, it also meant he carried the team on his shoulder’s and his performance ironed out numerous flaws and gaps that the team had.

In hindsight, CSK actually pulled off quite a feat by reaching the finals. By Dhoni’s own admission, it wasn’t their best season and the fact that changes need to be made are apparent.

If there is one wish for IPL 2020, it is that it should see a new winner. Only 3 teams have never won the IPL thus far.

The Kings XI Punjab seem to lose steam midway through the tournament and need to learn to sustain the momentum.

The Royal Challengers Bangalore need to overhaul their mindset and culture if they are to shed their underperformer’s tag.

The Delhi Capitals look the most promising. From being at the bottom of the table last year, new ownership, a new name, and Ricky Ponting and Sourav Ganguly at the helm, seem to have revived the team’s fortunes. They have a young squad, a young captain and if they can build on this year’s inspiring run, they have a good chance at breaking on through to the other side next season. The IPL could do with some new title holders.

Dhoni’s future as a player with the franchise looks uncertain. It’s hard to imagine him play or mentor any other franchise, his less than memorable stint with the Rising Pune Super Giants being seen as a mere filler before he returned to his beloved CSK. No one sees him playing beyond the World Cup, especially with a rampaging Rishab Pant waiting in the wings. Whether he will pull on for a season or two to set the transition rolling for CSK is yet to be seen. Either way, we need to start thinking of the Chennai Super Kings without MS Dhoni.

When Sanjay Manjrekar asked him if he would return next year, he said ‘hopefully’.

The Chennai Super Kings saga reads like a Tollywood script.

IPL Champions who are banned for two years and then return to lift the trophy and almost pull off consecutive title wins.

Even if this is curtains down for the Dhoni era of Chennai Super Kings, let’s just say thank you for all the whistles.