Will MS Dhoni pass the baton to Ben Stokes in what could be his final season for CSK?

It is that time of the year in Chennai when the fans dust their yellow jersey and wear it with pride like no other city in India. The buzz has already started in the city. Ever since MS Dhoni and a few of his troops checked in on Thursday and Chennai Super Kings began their preparations, fans have been queuing up outside the MA Chidambaram Stadium. There have been instances where several fans even stood outside a posh hotel in the city – which used to be the franchise’s home – only to go back in disappointment after being told they have moved to a new base.

Such fandom is unseen for any other franchise. But then not every franchise is Chennai Super Kings and not every team has Dhoni in it. It is hard to separate the both in this part of the country and the upcoming season seems all the more special. There has been no official word yet, but the CSK faithful are already seeing this as their “Thala’s” farewell season. Some of the fan groups are already making extensive plans to make each of the seven outings at Chepauk a special one for their favourite one.

The 41-year-old Dhoni has already revealed his intentions of playing his last IPL match at his adopted home Chennai – but hasn’t said whether 2023 will be his last — and the last league match against Kolkata Knight Riders is seen as the occasion for the sunset of a glittering career that has fetched the franchise four IPL and two Champions League titles.

Although the last of four IPL titles arrived only in 2021, it feels like a long time ago. In the last edition in 2022, which happened after full-fledged player auctions, Chennai – who usually assemble their first XI at the auction – came back with some holes and had all the makings of a shipwreck. In the end, in a 10-team league, they finished ninth with just four wins – their lowest ever. And more than their performance what made all the headlines was how Chennai performed under a new captain in Ravindra Jadeja, who eventually made way for Dhoni again mid-way through the season.

By bringing in Ben Stokes for a record sum of Rs 16.25 crore, all things point towards a season where Dhoni passes the baton. Going by what transpired in 2022, Jadeja was named captain only two days before the start of the tournament, there is every chance Chennai will leave it till very late – like they usually do with the bat in chases. But even before the entire team has assembled, there are a few concerns to address.

While the arrival of Stokes was seen as Chennai finding an ideal captain to take over, the English all-rounder is nursing a slight niggle in his knee. During the recently concluded Tests against New Zealand, Stokes bowled only nine overs in two matches. While Stokes has committed to play for Chennai, it is understood that a clear picture on his full availability will only emerge after he joins the team towards the last week of March. Stokes has already hinted at his unavailability for the later stages of the IPL citing the one-off Tests against Ireland and the Ashes.

Such a scenario will not be conducive for Stokes to take over this season. It is understood that the franchise would instead prefer the Englishman to get accustomed to its culture this edition and head coach Stephen Fleming is already in touch with Stokes about the way forward. The franchise is also aware of Stokes workload and doesn’t want to burden him with the added pressure of captaincy.

Although there are admirers in the franchise for Ruturaj Gaikwad, a player Dhoni has been grooming for a leadership role in the franchise, especially thanks to his calm demeanour and ability to be unfazed under pressure, questions still remain if he can fill the big shoes of an all-time great. Last season, despite being informed in advance about the captaincy switch, that Jadeja struggled in the hot seat is not lost among the franchise.

While all along they have been keen on having a player, who is familiar with the surroundings as captain, the lessons from Jadeja’s elevation has made them re-look at it. Although Stokes is new to the franchise set-up, he has played under Dhoni and Fleming during his time with Rising Pune Supergiants and knows how the two operate. An inspirational captain, who is at the forefront of England’s red-ball revival, the franchise definitely sees Stokes as a perfect fit as he can operate freely as the management seldom interferes in team affairs.

Although all of this points to a chaotic scene, the franchise remains unfazed and for all the questions there is only one answer: “Thala will look into it.”

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