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Mahendra Singh Dhoni hands over Chennai Super Kings captaincy to Ruturaj Gaikwad ahead of Indian Premier League 2024 season in Chennai on Thursday. Image Credit: Source: Chennai Super Kings

Chennai: Mahendra Singh Dhoni is known to throw up surprises. It might be bringing a rookie pacer like Joginder Sharma to bowl the last over of the Twenty20 World Cup final in 2007 or quitting the Indian captaincy or announcing his retirement without any hint. The Captain Cool plays by his rulebook.

It is no different when it comes to his endearing stint with Chennai Super Kings. When the Whistle Podu fans were expecting him to announce his retirement after the last match at Chepauk, the 42-year-old gave a twist to the tale by announcing that he will bid his time to make his decision with the next IPL one year away.

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Chennai's succession plan

The one year has passed and it is still not known if he has committed to play or not, but Dhoni stumped his legion of ardent fans by announcing on the eve of Season 17 opener against Royal Challengers Bengaluru that he has relinquished the captaincy and coronates the young prince Ruturaj Gaikwad in a bid to continue with the succession process of one of the most successful IPL franchises.

It is not just Etihad-sponsored Chennai that has started the new era. Mumbai Indians replaced their most successful captain Rohit Sharma with Hardik Pandya, Shubman Gill took charge of Gujarat Titans, Pat Cummins is at the helm of Sunrisers Hyderabad while Rishabh Pant and Shreyas Iyer reclaimed their roles after missing last season due to injuries. Only four among the last 10 captains have held their positions this season, suggesting IPL is ready to roll over to the next generation.

At 42, despite being fit, Dhoni knows he is walking towards the sunset. Hence, two years ago he had made a similar attempt to promote all-rounder Ravindra Jadeja to the hot seat. But that move proved to be a disaster as the all-rounder failed to deliver both as a player and as a captain. With the team’s fortunes hitting rock bottom, Dhoni reclaimed his position as a skipper, still could not resurrect the team from finishing ninth among the ten teams.

Big shoes to fill

It’s not an easy shoes to fill. Dhoni plays the role of a leader, mentor, finisher, wicketkeeper, coach and a strategist, guiding the Super Kings to five titles in the last 17 seasons. It’s just one role he has offloaded, the rest still remains with him. Hopefully, he doesn’t have to take it back again.

“Dhoni in any capacity for a team will be the best asset,” CEO Kasi Viswanathan had earlier told Gulf News, highlighting his importance in the team. Such is his quality that Dhoni led the Lions to their fifth title last season, despite nursing a knee injury. He might have limped on the field, but the team was trotting to the playoffs right from the start.

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The 9 team captains and Punjab Kings vice-captain Jitesh Sharma with the Indian Premier League trophy on the eve of the season 17 opener in Chennai on Thursday. Image Credit: IPL

Dhoni's cryptic message on retirement

After winning the 2021 title in Dubai, Dhoni, at a felicitation in Chennai, had said: “I have always planned my cricket. The last game that I played was in Ranchi. The last ODI...was at my hometown in Ranchi. So, hopefully, my last T20, it will be in Chennai...whether it’s next year or in five years’ time, we don’t know.”

Viswanathan had hoped that it comes after five years. Two years have already passed since and now the feared finisher has the task of ensuring that the team is in the safe hands. For sure, Gaikwad has the capable shoulders, but will he be to carry the burden of expectations? The actions that unfolds in Chennai on Friday will give a fair idea of what is to come in the future.

Gaikwad’s first test comes against Bengaluru in the South Indian derby, where his former Chennai opening partner Faf du Plessis is at the helm of affairs. Last season, the Super Kings had managed to beat the Bengaluru team on both occasions, but it is not going to be easy to maintain that record this season as the team, under coach Andy Flower, has managed to rope in the Australian all-rounder Cameroon Green to bolster their line-up.

March 22: Chennai Super Kings vs Royal Challengers Bangalore in Chennai, 6.30pm (UAE)
March 23: Punjab Kings vs Delhi Capitals in Mullanpur, 2pm
March 23: Kolkata Knight Riders vs Sunrisers Hyderabad in Kolkata, 6pm
March 24: Rajasthan Royals vs Lucknow Super Giants in Jaipur, 2pm
March 24: Gujarat Titans vs Mumbai Indians in Ahmedabad, 6pm
March 25: Royal Challengers Bangalore vs Punjab Kings in Bengaluru, 6pm
March 26: Chennai Super Kings vs Gujarat Titans in Chennai, 6pm
March 27: Sunrisers Hyderabad vs Mumbai Indians in Hyderabad, 6pm
March 28: Rajasthan Royals vs Delhi Capitals in Jaipur, 6pm
March 29: Royal Challengers Bangalore vs Kolkata Knight Riders in Bengaluru, 6pm
March 30: Lucknow Super Giants vs Punjab Kings in Lucknow, 6pm
March 31: Gujarat Titans vs Sunrisers Hyderabad in Ahmedabad, 2pm
March 31: Delhi Capitals vs Chennai Super Kings in Visakhapatnam, 6pm
April 1: Mumbai Indians vs Rajasthan Royals in Mumbai, 6pm
April 2: Royal Challengers Bangalore vs Lucknow Super Giants in Bengaluru, 6pm
April 3: Delhi Capitals vs Kolkata Knight Riders in Visakhapatnam, 6pm
April 4: Gujarat Titans vs Punjab Kings in Ahmedabad, 6pm
April 5: Sunrisers Hyderabad vs Chennai Super Kings in Hyderabad, 6pm
April 6: Rajasthan Royals vs Royal Challengers Bangalore in Jaipur, 6pm
April 7: Mumbai Indians vs Delhi Capitals in Mumbai, 2pm
April 7: Lucknow Super Giants vs Gujarat Titans in Lucknow, 6pm

Kohli poses a real danger for rivals

The real danger could come in the form of Virat Kohli. A rejuvenated and elated Kohli returns to the field after a two-month paternity break for the birth of his second child. Once again the talk of Kohli not being a certainty in the Indian team will only steel his nerves to raise his game higher and the rivals will face the brunt of it.

Both teams have immense quality in the pace deparment, but the Chepauk pitch traditionally favours the spinners. While the Chennai attack has plenty of options and variety, the Royal Challengers wear thin. Glenn Maxwell and Karn Sharma are the most recognisable spinners in the attack.

Hence it is going to be a contest between the Chennai spinners and the Bengaluru middle order when the likes of Rajat Patidar, Anuj Rawat and Mahipal Lomror come to the crease. It is difficult to beat Chennai at their own den and historically, Bengaluru have not won their opener, which makes the Yellove as the favourites for Friday’s contest. But there still could be more surprises.