CSK skipper Mahendra Singh Dhoni is likely to retire at the end of IPL 2023. But the former India captain has neither confirmed nor denied it. So the guessing game continues. Image Credit: Courtesy: BCCI

Will Mahendra Singh Dhoni retire this season? Yes, seems to be the answer. That’s what all the media outlets in India say. But the Chennai Super Kings captain is yet to utter a word on his future. So will he walk away?

Dhoni was expected to address the issue before Season 16 of the Indian Premier League. And we are a day away from the start on Friday. Dhoni will lead CSK against the reigning champions Gujarat Titan in the opener. There has been no news yet.

Reports in India quoted an unnamed CSK official saying: “We believe this will be his [Dhoni’s] last season as he wants to bid farewell at his favourite stadium [M.A. Chidambaram Stadium in Chennai]. In any case, we should have clarity by the start of the IPL.”

Even in the absence of any clarification from the CSK captain, the firm belief is that Dhoni will hang up his IPL boots. You can’t fault the media since neither Dhoni nor CSK has rejected the reports. But CSK insists that Dhoni will remain captain until he announces his retirement.

“MS [Dhoni] has not informed us [CSK] of his decision, and there is no pressure on him to do so. He is our leader and will do what is best for the team. As far as the management is concerned, MS has our full support whether he continues beyond this season,” the CSK official told the media.

Dhoni has been cagey about his future. Last year when he was asked about his legacy, Dhoni’s response was: “Still, I’ve not left it behind.”

Yet, there were indications of Dhoni’s plans to end his playing days. Handing over the CSK captaincy to Ravindra Jadeja was a clear sign. But that backfired spectacularly as Jadeja’s performances suffered under the strain of leadership, and CSK slumped to a succession of defeats. Dhoni was forced to take over the reins of CSK.

But he can’t go on. At 41, Dhoni’s reflexes have slowed. He’s no longer the lethal finisher he was, which is why he quit international cricket. But CSK and IPL have a special place in his heart.

Imagine a Hindi-speaking cricketer from Jharkhand becoming the darling of the cricket-crazy Tamilians, who oppose any attempt to impose Hindi on them. Tamil Nadu is the home of Dravidian culture, and Tamilians guard it ferociously.

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The love for Dhoni transcends all that. For Tamilians worldwide, Dhoni is the thala (leader in Tamil). His every move and word is followed zealously by the CSK fan army or the WhistlePodu (blow the whistle in Tamil) brigade. A CSK net session at the Chidambaram Stadium in Chepauk attracts a crowd of 20,000. All of them are there to watch their beloved thala.

When Dhoni ambles to the nets, swinging arms, a deafening roar goes up, followed by incessant whistling. Dhoni acknowledges the love for him and reciprocates with a wave or a smile. And the crowd goes bananas. That’s Dhoni mania.

In the past, Dhoni had spoken of his desire to play his farewell match at Chepauk in front of the people who love him. That opportunity has come now that the Indian cricket board has restored home-and-away matches in the IPL.

That lends credence to the theory that this could be Dhoni’s final year in the IPL as a player. Will he retire? Only Dhoni knows the answer.