MS Dhoni and Eoin Morgan massively underperformed with the bat in IPL 2021, yet were the two captains to meet in the final. What went wrong and what went right?
IPL 2020 was one to forget for the Chennai Super Kings, as the men in yellow ended up at an ignominious 7th position on the points table, their worst ever finish. In fact, it was the 3-time champions’ only finish outside of the top four since the tournament’s inception in 2008. For a franchise that has consistency written all over it, this was an unforeseen and demoralising blow. Mockingly referred to as the ‘Dad’s Army’ due to a majority of their players being on the wrong side of 30, it was inevitable that the experienced yet aged legs would tire out at some point.
The man that bore the brunt of most of the criticism was none other than Mahendra Singh Dhoni, who was ridiculed for his sluggish batting and refusal to give a chance to the few youngsters in the squad. But condemnation is nothing MS Dhoni is not used to, and the man scripted a comeback for the ages the very next year, 2021. In an IPL campaign that split open into two halves due to Covid-19 related complications, Dhoni managed to keep his wits about him and remain unaffected by the break, emerging even stronger when the tournament restarted in September as CSK emerged 4-time champions at the end of it all.
But the man at the helm of it all, MS Dhoni, had a second consecutive season to forget with the bat. Scoring a miserly 114 runs at an average of 16.28, the former India captain simply failed to make an impact with bat in hand. But his failure at the crease was overshadowed by his sheer brilliance behind the stumps, both as wicket-keeper as well as captain. More so the latter. ‘Captain Cool’ Dhoni’s tactical virtuosity was a humongous factor in CSK’s turnaround, and very few in the history of the game can claim to match his mental mastery. One of those few was the man Dhoni faced in the 2021 final, Kolkata Knight Riders captain Eoin Morgan. Like Dhoni, Morgan had a torrid season with the bat as he only managed 133 runs at a meek average of 11.08. Morgan’s ineffectiveness with willow in hand was a little more talked about than Dhoni’s under-performance, but that did not stop Morgan from roaring into the final. Having won just 2 out of their first 7 games in the first leg, the Knights changed gears and demolished opposition teams in the second UAE leg, winning 5 out of their next 7 to pip Mumbai Indians for a playoff berth.
A World Cup winning captain, Englishman Morgan led the side with a quiet ruthlessness, never letting his emotions get the better of him, quite like Dhoni. Usually batting as low as number 6 or 7, Eoin failed to finish games in the death overs, falling for a score under 10 regularly. But when your team qualifies for the playoffs, wins the Eliminator against Virat Kohli-led Royal Challengers Bangalore, then the 2nd Qualifier against group stage table-toppers Delhi Capitals, and progresses to the final, who cares about how much of an impact Captain Morgan is having with the bat? As long as the team wins, all is well, they say. Though KKR came up short in the final, Morgan’s presence in the side was far from irrelevant. Surreptitious yet cunning field placements, unorthodox bowling changes, and consistency in the playing XI characterise the way in which both these esteemed leaders conduct proceedings on the field.
Though Dhoni’s reputation as a destructive ‘finisher’ always adds to the cheers when he walks in to bat, the same is not the case for Morgan. On his day, the England white ball captain is as good as they come, and has torn apart bowling attacks more than once. But the issue with him has always been that his ‘day’ seems to come only once every two years. Questions are raised about his place in the side, but then he leads England to the final of the 2016 T20 World Cup. Question his place again, and he goes one better and wins the 2019 ODI World Cup. Though massively successful as England and franchise cricket captain, Morgan’s captaincy exploits come nowhere close to Dhoni’s, who is in a world of his own. The 2021 IPL final marked Dhoni’s 300th game as T20 captain, and he has led his side to victory in 176 of those. Under his tenure as India captain, the Men in Blue won the 2007 T20 World Cup, 2011 ODI World Cup and the 2013 Champions Trophy. As CSK captain, Dhoni conquered the 2010 and 2014 Champions League Twenty20, and the 2010, 2011, 2018 and 2021 IPL. The 40-year-old gladiator sports an unreal leadership record.
In terms of being a tactician, Morgan gives him stiff competition. Known for his unlikely yet effective bowling changes, the Englishman has the ability to hold an opposition’s batting innings by the throat only through his mastermind decisions on the field. And he doesn’t let go until he’s the victor. Morgan’s style of play can logically be compared to former England captain Mike Brearley, though Eoin has achieved far more as a batsman in international cricket than Brearley did. Brearley never bowled a single delivery during his 64-match England career, for he was a batsman. But he never scored a single century either, with his highest Test score being 91. Despite this, he captained England in 31 of his 39 Tests, losing just 4 and winning 17. In addition to this, he led England to the final of the 1979 World Cup too. Good enough to be in the side only for captaincy? Definitely.
Moving onto Dhoni, Indian fans received a huge boost of confidence when the great man was named as India’s ‘mentor’ for the upcoming T20 World Cup. Without doubt, his experience and tips will play a gigantic role in determining where India ends up in the tournament. In the last edition, in 2016, Dhoni-led India fell short in the semi-final to the mighty West Indies. Whether they can go two better this time around will heavily depend on Dhoni’s crucial inputs off the field. Not being in the heat of the action might actually work to his advantage. Staying in the confines of the dressing room, Dhoni can coolly study the playing patterns and strategies of the various other teams involved, and shower the Indian side with his wisdom. It is more than likely that Dhoni’s coaching influence could culminate in a maiden ICC trophy for Kohli the captain.
Both Eoin Morgan and MS Dhoni have indelibly carved their own incredible legacies. Both these maestros sport a similar style of leadership — cool, calm, composed and lethal. No matter the result of the IPL, or the upcoming World Cup, nothing can take away from the brilliance that the 40-year-old Indian icon and the effulgent Englishman display out on the turf. Not with the bat, of course!