Mahendra Singh Dhoni
Mahendra Singh Dhoni of the Chennai Super Kings batting during the Tata Indian Premier League match against the Rajasthan Royals at the MA Chidambaram Stadium, Chennai on April 12, 2023. Dhoni narrowly failed to take the CSK to victory. Image Credit: Sportzpics for IPL

The Chennai fortress has been breached. Pity, it happened to be Mahendra Singh Dhoni’s 200th match as Chennai Super Kings captain. Worse, he failed to close out the IPL game on Wednesday.

The Rajasthan Royals will savour the three-run win, especially since the Sanju Samson-led team have never won in Chepauk since 2008. This was their first successful chase at the M.A. Chidambaram Stadium.

It’s CSK’s citadel. Here’s where their merry band of spinners, led by ringmaster Dhoni, wreak havoc. Three of their four IPL titles have been built on the back of wins at the slow pitches at home. That’s why the CSK relish the prospect of seven home matches this season. They reckon they could win all of them, and that would put them in pole position in the hunt for the playoff spots.

How Samson stopped the CSK charge

Things went according to the script on Wednesday as CSK spinners restricted the powerful Rajasthan batting to 175 — a below-par total. But Rajasthan provided the twist by playing the game the Chennai way. They packed three world-class spinners, including two leggies. So when the spin squeeze from Ravichandran Ashwin, Yuzvendra Chahal and Adam Zampa came, CSK struggled after their brisk start.

That was until Dhoni strolled to the crease. His dodgy knee prevented him from turning singles into twos, but he could swing the bat. Swing it hard enough to send the ball over the ropes.

You can’t rule out a CSK win so long as Dhoni is at the crease. Even when the odds are high, he can spring a surprise. Five runs to win from the last ball of the match; that’s not impossible.

Nothing is impossible after Rinku Singh’s five sixes in a row for the Kolkata Knight Riders. Dhoni works on a different plane. He has forged his reputation as the world’s best finisher in situations like this.

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The Chepauk stadium was bathed in yellow, the CSK colours. Almost every seat seemed occupied by the Whistle Podu (blow the whistle in Tamil) army of CSK fans. They believed in Dhoni. After all, he slammed two sixes in three balls against Lucknow Super Giants’ Mark Woods, one of the fastest bowlers in the world.

So Sandeep Sharma, a trundler or more precisely a swing bowler, should be easy picking, Chennai fans would have thought. Their belief was not misplaced as the nervy Rajasthan seamer started the final over with two wides. Bowling to Dhoni is never easy. Sharma’s yorkers missed by inches, and the CSK skipper swung them over square-leg and midwicket fences.

Sharma managed a dot ball before switching to round the wicket to recalibrate his radar. It worked. He gave away only a couple of singles. By then, 17 of the 21 runs required in the last over were knocked off. Last ball: five runs for a win. A boundary would have pushed the match into Super Over.

Rajasthan players left Sharma to work it out. No needless advice. After all, the 29-year-old had plenty of experience. He believed in his yorkers. And he nailed the final delivery: a yorker that landed just outside the off stump. Dhoni dug it out, ran a single and impassively walked away as a hush fell over the stadium.

The swelling injury list of CSK

As Rajasthan vaulted to the top of the points table, Chennai are left to ponder their prospects after two losses from four games. A home loss is difficult to stomach and raised questions about the quality of the side, which is beset by injuries.

The biggest blow has been Deepak Chahar’s hamstring injury, which robbed the CSK of early wickets. South African fast bowler Sisanda Magala split the webbing on his hand and will be out for two weeks. Seamer Simarjeet Singh is still recovering from an injury, and so is England captain Ben Stokes.

That makes for a weak pace attack. Which’s why the CSK have to win home matches with the spin pack of Ravindra Jadeja, Moen Ali, Maheesh Theekshana and Mitchell Santner. The loss against Rajasthan is a setback. But the CSK always find a way to claw back. That’s been a feature of Dhoni’s captaincy for 200 matches.

So keep your eyes peeled for a CSK fightback.