Dhoni Rohit
MS Dhoni of the Chennai Super Kings and Rohit Sharma of the Mumbai Indians during the Tata Indian Premier League match at the MA Chidambaram Stadium, Chennai, on May 6, 2023. Their captaincy has been pivotal to the fortunes of their teams. Image Credit: Sportzpics for IPL

Who will play in the IPL final? Don’t be surprised if the Chennai Super Kings and Mumbai Indians clash on Sunday. Let’s not get that far since the Gujarat Titans can still spring a surprise on Friday. But Mumbai and Chennai have shown they are dominant forces even after 15 years of the Indian Premier League.

The two share nine of the 15 titles, which makes them an integral part of the IPL story. What makes them so formidable? True, they are backed by big businesses and have strong teams. A powerful team doesn’t always translate into trophies. Ask the Rajasthan Royals.

The stability comes from a core team, where captains and coaches play pivotal roles. Stephen Fleming has been the Chennai coach since 2009, but Mumbai have been through several coaches, with Mahela Jayawardene helping them to a purple patch.

Captains courageous of IPL

The success of Chennai and Mumbai owes a lot to their captains. Mahendra Singh Dhoni, former Indian captain, and Rohit Sharma, current India skipper, have led the two teams to IPL triumphs. Mumbai won the first of five titles under Sharma, who took over the reins from Ricky Ponting midway through the 2013 season. He’s still at the helm as Mumbai eye another shot at glory.

Dhoni has been CSK’s thala (leader in Tamil), as the Whistle Podu (blow the whistle) fan army refers to him. He’s led the Chennai Super Kings since their inception, except for a brief ill-fated captaincy spell by Ravindra Jadeja last season. In 16 years, Dhoni has lifted CSK to four titles from nine finals. A phenomenal record, considering that T20 captaincy can be tricky. Very tricky.

Captains play a very influential role in cricket, and their leadership skills are put under the wringer in T20 cricket, where situations evolve quickly. Captains have to think on their feet and change their plans swiftly. The coaching staff can draw up strategies but could be shredded by rival tactics only for the captain to salvage the situation.

Here’s where Dhoni and Sharma excel. They are unruffled even in the face of dire crises. Of course, the two have plenty of experience, which enables them to ride out the storms in the field. That requires patience, loads of it.

More importantly, the two can elicit mistakes from dominant rivals, allowing their teams to claw back into matches. Times without number, they have won games that looked like lost causes. A new line of attack, an unlikely choice of a bowler and a change in field positions would fetch the wicket that could open the floodgates. That’s the work of a good tactician: Dhoni and Sharma are just that.

Both are the antithesis of Virat Kohli, whose firebrand captaincy and aggressive tactics brought plenty of fine wins for India but not for the Royal Challengers Bangalore. Dhoni and Sharma are the quiet sorts. The Chennai skipper is so deadpan on the field it’s difficult to read his mind. He would break into a smile only after the game was won.

In contrast, Sharma’s face reflects his mind: frustration at a dropped catch and jubilation at a dismissal all plays out. But they are never over the top.

Post-match interviews are often very revealing. The Mumbai captain is not shy of airing his disappointment over a chase that collapsed bizarrely. When his team wins, Sharma is elated but never ecstatic. It’s tempered with caution. He does praise his players, but it’s far from effusive.

Dhoni is at his best during interviews. He would break down the game into small passages of play, dwell on the turning points, how his players played the situation and how it affected the result.

Difference between Dhoni and Rohit

For all his analyses, the CSK leader doesn’t give too much away on tactics and the work behind them. When asked about Shivam Dube’s transformation, he admitted that a lot of work went into it but refused to reveal it. What happened in the dressing room should remain there: that’s all he would say.

This is where Dhoni differs from Sharma. The Mumbai skipper is good at marshalling his troops on the field and working out tactics. But he’s rarely said to have moulded players or the team. That I presume is left to the coaching staff.

Dhoni is more hands-on. Between Fleming and Dhoni, they put the CSK squad together. They bring in players, work on them, and turn them into matchwinners. Look at how Ruturaj Gaikwad and Devon Conway have developed into fine T20 batters without sacrificing their orthodox technique.

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CSK buy discards and make them trump cards. Shane Watson, Moeen Ali, Robin Uthappa, Ambati Rayudu and Ajinkya Rahane are some examples. They all have credited Dhoni’s trust and the freedom he allows to play their game as the key to success.

Chennai have benefited from it. Twelve playoff spots in 16 seasons bear testimony to that. And with each year, the legend of Dhoni grows.

Sharma is not a legend in Mumbai, but his leadership has been inspiring. For a team, which often start slow with crippling losses, they bounce back often to hit the winning trail. That story was repeated this year too. To do that often, a captain has to be good at motivating.

Motivation. That’s what Dhoni and Sharma do. Same, yet different. Which is why I’m rooting for a Chennai-Mumbai final.