For CSK, Dhoni is a habit, he isn’t retiring any time soon

    MS Dhoni had misread a Rashid Khan googly and the ball had embarrassingly sneaked in between the bat-pad opening to hit the stumps. This was in 2018 during the IPL final Qualifier where CSK’s Dad Army, playing SRH, was in the middle of a tricky chase. As Dhoni walked towards the dugout, CSK’s batting coach Michael Hussey got a sinking feeling. Worse was to follow. The captain would walk up to him, look him in his eyes and growl: ‘I will bat my way, Thanks’. Hussey thought his first IPL season as batting coach would also be his last.

    The previous night, the former Aussie batsman had shared, on the team’s whatsapp group, the CSK analyst’s inputs to play the Afghan leggie. The message said that the batters should focus on Rashid’s grip when he was at the top of his run-up. In case Rashid’s fingers are split expect a leg-spinner, if together it would be the googly.

    On the pitch, Dhoni to his horror, found out that Rashid could bowl a split-fingers googly too. Years later the wily Afghan with a sly smile would peel one thin layer of his mystery art and tell the world that he, at times, changes his grip mid-way through his approach to the crease, just as he passes the umpire. Hussey, Dhoni and CSK had been sold a lemon.

    Appearing on the Inside Edge podcast as guest, Hussey shares the Dhoni story that doesn’t quite end with him taking a flight back to Australia. “MS was fantastic after the game. He said that the information was great but he needed time to process it … I thought I saw him run in with (split) fingers and after that I forgot … I didn’t watch the ball … I need to remember to watch the ball.”

    Bad captains would have got Hussey sacked, even the good ones would at least have questioned him. Meanwhile, great captains, like Dhoni, are different. They look within and get the answer.

    Five years after CSK got over Rashid’s ‘wrong ‘un’ and went on to win the Qualifier against SRH and later the final, Hussey remains the batting coach and Dhoni is on the cusp of taking IPL’s most-passionately supported and unbelievably consistent team to its 5th title. It’s a franchise that understands cricket and cricketers, CSK knowledgeable owners have patience. It’s the reason they win more than others.

    Hussey shouldn’t have worried, he is a CSK Hall of Famer. The gritty batsman is Chennai’s third highest run-getter after Dhoni and Raina while being part of two IPL winning campaigns. CSK doesn’t forget those who have served the franchise well. They also believe in continuity and retaining the core, that’s been their USP, their success formula. They say, at CSK, you don’t lose, you either win or learn.

    Hussey perfectly fits the CSK template, he ticks all the boxes to be a true Yellow CSKian. Having played for the great Australian side of the 2000s, he understands the importance of ‘mateship’ and the strong bond between players who have each other’s back for a long time. “Chennai have incredible faith and continuity with their team. Like the great Australian team that I was lucky enough to play with, they kept the trust and relationship with each other for over a decade. They knew each other inside and out, the same sort I sense in CSK,” he says on the podcast.

    Temperamentally too, Hussey is more Dhoni than say a Kohli. He has a reputation of being a calm thinking cricketer. Like the Indian super star, the Aussie great too took the tough road to the national team. Their back stories say these were no gifted prodigies but honest triers who put in the hard yards. They took the stairs but that didn’t stop them from reaching lofty heights. Both are firm believers of process and also problem solvers. When Dhoni struggled with swing in England, he moved up the pitch. Hussey, on the other hand, would ditch the ‘bat tap’ and hold the bat in air to deal with the same problem.

    This season, Dhoni has played braving a knee injury, which has severely affected his running between the wickets. And there have also been instances where his reflexes behind the stumps have slowed down a bit.

    By design or because of CSK’s eternal love for strong, solid and silent cricketers, the third core member of the CSK think tank is the Kiwi Stephen Fleming. Like Hussey, he too joined as a player and later moved to the dugout. Fleming has been the head coach since 2008. He and Dhoni share a special bond. Whenever during an IPL game, the camera zooms to the dressing room to catch Dhoni, Fleming isn’t too far away. They are hardly seen talking, they resemble a compatible couple in a long relationship who read each other’s thoughts and don’t need words to communicate.

    Fleming has a long podcast with another CSK great Shane Watson. It’s here one finds out that Fleming too, like Hussey in early 2000 and Dhoni now, learnt the early lesson in retaining the core. A captain at 23, Fleming had Nathan Astle, Chris Cairns, Adam Parore, Simon Doull – all in their mid-20s, they would be regulars in the team who would repeatedly punch above their weight in international cricket.

    Chennai Super Kings captain MS Dhoni before the start of the IPL 2023 cricket match. (PTI Photo)

    Fleming tells Watson about an early influence during his captaincy that gave him a better understanding of cricket as a team sport. Back in 2003, when the Kiwis were in the middle of a slump during a tour to India, a noted sports psychologist, Gilbert Enoka, was sent to join the team by the New Zealand board.

    Enoka came with a formidable reputation, he was the Swiss knife of New Zealand sport. After the stint with Black Caps, Enoka was to be an important decision-maker for the world’s most successful sporting team – the New Zealand All Blacks. With him at helm, New Zealand would win two rugby World Cups – 2011 and 2015.

    In sporting circles, Enoka is famous as the man who propagated the “no d*&@heads” policy. For the uninitiated it’s the collective intention of the team to keep a player, notwithstanding his talent, out of the team if he doesn’t fit into the team culture. In 2017, he gave a quote that often finds place in corporate presentations. It’s the definitive definition of “d*&@heads”.

    “A d*&@head makes everything about them. [They are] people putting themselves ahead of the team. Or people who think they’re entitled to things or expect the rules to be different for them. People operating deceitfully in the dark, or alternatively, being unnecessarily loud about their work.”

    Enoka ingrained in the young Fleming the virtue of assembling like-minded players and sticking to them. Recalling his days as captain, the Kiwi star tells Watson: “Skill wise we were below the best team, but we made sure all the other parts were working well, we were a more proficient team and a team that was always searching”. CSK too has shades of New Zealand of old. They might not look intimidating on auction day but on the final day of the IPL they end up taking the silverware.

    Fleming brought with him to Chennai, the man management skills that he had picked from mind-guru Enoka. At the end of the very first meeting as CSK head coach, the Kiwi realised the complexity of his task. Fleming composed a ‘hot’ speech, which he thought had floored the team. Hussey, one of the team’s foreign imports, appreciated the talk. Mathew Hayden too gave his thumbs up. However, it was an Indian player who walked up to him to burst his bubble. “You talk too fast, we didn’t understand anything,” he said. The penny had fallen, Fleming needed to improve his communication to win over the dressing room.

    With time he did but both Fleming and Hussey haven’t grown as leaders in the overwhelming shadow of the larger than life Thala. The Kiwi and Aussie update the skills of CSK players, prepare them to deliver at crunch situations but the field of play looks beyond their jurisdiction. It’s where the maestro instructs the orchestra. Dhoni is the fine mesh through which every instruction or strategy has to pass before it becomes the team policy. There can’t be a CSK, as the world knows, without Dhoni.

    The Super King isn’t retiring any time soon, he will lead the team to the field till the time he can walk. He can’t be replaced, Hussey and Fleming are no Mourinho or Guardiola. Dhoni for CSK is a habit, their second nature. When a player is yellow in confused, his eyes don’t search for the coaches in the dugout, he looks for their Thala behind the stumps.

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