| Mahendra Singh Dhoni |
Ranchi: A dark grey Hummer made its way through the North Gate, behind the police pilot van, much ahead of the bus that brought the Chennai Super Kings into the Jharkhand State Cricket Association Stadium, on Saturday afternoon.
All hell was breaking loose as an ominous black cloud hovered overhead, throwing signs of an impending downpour. Just a few hundred feet away Brian Lara sat monitoring the Trinidad and Tobago team’s progress as they were closing in on a practice match.
The Hummer’s arrival sent the handful present — police, media and the locals — into a tizzy. Its number plate was enough to abolish the doubts about its owner: 9H01AB 7781.
Mahendra Singh Dhoni’s date of birth isn’t unknown in his hometown. A fleeting moment later, the Team India and Super Kings captain stepped out of the driver’s seat with a few bats in hand.
If the local police had been worried about his bike rides during his stay at home for close to a week, his decision to drive the Hummer is sure to have brought some relief. The conditions, though, weren’t to his liking ahead of their Champions League T20 opener against last season’s semi-finalists Titans of South Africa.
It has been pouring here for the past few days and there is threat of rain ahead of Sunday’s double-header. The Super Kings had to remain content with practising at the stadium’s indoor facilities for a couple of hours before getting a feel of the practice wickets.
Coach Stephen Fleming was pragmatic. “There’s not much you can do… We’ll just wait and see. What we’ll try to do is take the emotion out of it, we’d love to get out and play. But if it looks like it’s going to rain or is raining, we’ll just try and deal with the facts.”
But this has had no effect on the preparations. “We’re always motivated… That it could be the last time together as a group, is very important. We’ve talked about that,” said Fleming.
“We’ve had some great success over six years, and to finish, I guess that six-year period with a good competition here is very important to the group,” he emphasised.
It’s been unusually cool during this time of the year and this could come as a boon to the pacers. The Titans are hoping to exploit the express pace of Morne Morkel and Marchant de Lange to rattle the Super Kings.
“This morning, when Morne and the others were bowling, the new ball was going around a bit, which, coming to India, suits us. It is the kind of wicket we play in South Africa,” said an optimistic captain Jacques Rudolph.
The Titans will be missing Albie Morkel and Faf du Plessis, who have both opted to play for the Super Kings in this tournament. But the presence of AB de Villiers in their ranks is a big bonus.
South Africa’s one-day captain is not alien to these conditions, and if his IPL form is any indication, the Super Kings can’t afford to let him play his shots.
Rudolph believes in the Gary Kirsten school of thought: Try and focus on your own game and don’t think about the opposition. Given the conditions, it won’t come as a surprise if the Titans decide to put the Super Kings under pressure through some chin music.
“If Morne and Marchant can get some early breakthroughs, we can push them on the back foot,” remarked Rudolph.
The veteran is also aware of the hurdles: most of the players will be playing in front of a big turnout for the first time and the support for the home team.
This match hasn’t been a sell out (“average ticket sales” was how one of the JSCA office-bearers put it), but the Titans will find the going tough even on a half-filled stadium.
Despite the Michael Husseys, the Suresh Rainas and the Ravindra Jadejas, it could be Dhoni who could make his first T20 match at home memorable. Fleming has already sounded a warning.
“The break has done Dhoni a world of good… He’s refreshed, he’s energised about the game and he’s looking forward to Sunday’s match,” said the Super Kings’ coach. Beware Titans!