Will this be MS Dhoni’s last IPL season? This has been the million dollar question ever since IPL 2023 began and fans have thronged stadiums to watch MSD bat, possibly for one last time all across the venues while JioCinema has been setting and smashing viewership records repeatedly, whenever ‘Thala’ makes his way to the middle with the bat in hand. While Kedar Jadhav former long-time CSK teammate of MS Dhoni believes that this is 1000% Dhoni’s final season, Robin Uthappa, Dhoni’s former CSK and Team India teammate reckons the great one could still be around a couple of more seasons provided his knee injury is ‘addressable’
Speaking exclusively to CricketNext.com as an IPL Expert on Jio Cinema, Uthappa, an IPL journeyman himself spoke at length about Dhoni’s immediate future, why Gujarat Titans have been a cut above the rest this season and also why he thinks Yashasvi Jaiswal will be a superstar for Team India in years to come.
Do you think this will be Dhoni’s final season, irrespective of whether he wins the title or not? And secondly, do you think CSK is ready for life after MSD? If yes, how is he is that going to pan out?
Well, when you say life after MS, I would like to say that I don’t think there will be a CSK without an MS. I think MS will always be a part of CSK in one form or the other. Having said that, will this be the last season if he wins? Well, I think the onset of the impact player rule, changes the ball game completely because his passion for the game has not dwindled. His love for the game has not dwindled. In fact, he still finds it really exciting.
He’s like, ‘If my knee was fine with this impact player rule, I could play for another two, three, four, five years, man. And you never know as long as I’m fit.
He’s got a very unusual… rather overused injury. So there’s nothing really you can do about it as far as treating it as concerned while he’s playing at the moment. You have to have a slightly long-term plan. And I think that’s what his intentions are to actually figure out through probably MRIs as to what the actual issue is and what are the solutions based on this issue that he’s got.
And if it’s something that he can address, I’m certain that we will see him come back again. If it’s not addressable, it probably will be his last season. But if it is addressable, I certainly think that he will come back and play for one, maybe more. It depends on how long his passion keeps burning for the game. I think more than the batting, but he enjoys the wicket-keeping weight and you’re being there in the middle and using his mind. I think that is more exciting for him than going there and smashing sixes.
Gujarat Titans have already qualified for the playoffs. Even though they came into the IPL as a defending champion, they were not outright favourites this year. You had a very strong Rajasthan outfit. CSK looked really good. SRH on paper had a gun team. Yet GT seemed to be a step ahead of the rest. Your take on why GT have looked the part this year so far?
Well, I had the pleasure of actually visiting the GT side from Viacom18 for an interview. I could just tell the atmosphere within the group was phenomenal. I think GT has a very relaxed atmosphere, I think, which a lot of players thrive in. And you could see that they have a lot of experienced Indian players and a lot of young Indian players. And I think the management has run both these players, both the seniors and the juniors in the same fashion. And I think if you want a healthy atmosphere within the group that needs to exist where everyone’s treated the same, right from the top guy to the youngest guy in the group or the most inexperienced guy in the group get treated the same.
What they experience and practice is the same. The intentions and the intent of the support staff and the coaching staff with the players are the same. Communication is open. Roles are clearly defined for the players. And I think these things are done very well. I think they’ve actually taken a leaf out of CSK’s hat there and followed a very simple protocol, which is quite surprising to me, having been a player and now a broadcaster, when I see that something so basic and simple and mundane that should be done, it covers all the basics of cricket aren’t covered by a lot of franchises.
And GT for one, have covered all those bases really well. One of the stories I can actually share with you is when Yash Dayal got hit for 28 or 30 in that last over, they came back to the hotel and they all met up in the team room and they had a singing and dancing night together where they actually made fun of Yash Dayal and got him to laugh at his own bullying and how he got hit. You break the pain away from it. You look beyond the pain. You look at the fun side of it. And then just to have his entire team rally around him.
Yes, he fell sick subsequently and all of that. But the pain from that experience had already been taken care of that night itself. And I think that goes to show how much and how far a team is willing to go for a player. And that sends not just a message to a player like Yash Dayal, but it sends a message across the board to all the players and youngsters that, hey, if they can look after one guy who’s had a terrible day, then they look after all of us.
And that makes a lot more secure environment. It makes an environment where everyone wants to contribute to the team. And with that, the performances are bound to come. Everyone’s bound to step up. And you could see even when, say, Sai Sudarshan, we don’t know why he missed out seven games, came back and already scored almost a 50 in his comeback game. So that goes to show that the atmosphere within the group is phenomenal.
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Once the season ends, you probably would look back at Rajasthan Royal’s campaign and say, ‘What a missed opportunity for the team and for Sanju Samson as well’. With the keeper-batter debate raging so much in Indian cricket and Rishabh Pant really out of the picture now, the spotlight was there for Samson’s taking, but he hasn’t really set the stage on fire. Has Samson really let go of a golden opportunity here to really assert his position for that India spot?
Well, it certainly was an opportunity from a limited-overs cricket (perspective) given the fact that KL Rahul was also injured during the course of the tournament. Rishabh Pant is going to be out of action. Ishan Kishan was scratching for form. So yeah, in that sense, it was an opportunity. But having said that, we know that he’s a high-quality player and deserves a decent run at the international level. I still don’t think he’s gotten that run yet. Even when he did get a look in, he got injured the last time he got picked. So I think that (opportunity) still awaits him and depends on how he utilizes that opportunity.
I think an India call-up is always based on, whether is the person talented enough to play at that level. And we certainly know that Sanju Samson is talented enough to play at that level. Will he thrive at that level? That is up to him. If he doesn’t utilize the opportunities that come his way, I think it should be a fair and square opportunity where he gets five games at a similar position with the role defined to him and saying, Okay, this is what we’re looking to do at this level for you.
And I think he’s still there and thereabouts. I think there are going to be a lot of wholesale changes in the Indian set-up after this one-day World Cup. So I think a lot of minds have been made up as far as selections are concerned. Rahul’s fitness will also define who’s going to be keeping in the one-day set-up. So I think there is a look-in for Sanju past this World Cup as well. But I think the next one or two years are going to be crucial for him. After the next World Cup that one year and the next T20 World Cup.
From now, perhaps, to the 2024 T20 World Cup is going to be a crucial time for him. And he showed short glimpses of very good leadership qualities as well. So you know that he’s got the stuff in him. It’s just about bringing it to the fore and how he is able to deal with himself in a positive way to bring those performances to the fore. You still think that when you look at it, at least for me, when I look at it from the outside, I feel like he’s finding himself as a batter given that his captaincy skills have come to the fore.
And I think that he needs to find his sweet spot within that. And that takes a little bit of finding time as well to find that. And given that space, I think he will find that. I think you’ll see a much more refined player in Sanju Samson over the next few years. As far as the India opportunity is concerned, I think it’s still not lost. I think he still deserves a fair chance given the ability and the talent that he possesses.
Yashaswi Jaiswal is banging down the door. As always, there’s a clamour for him to fast-track to the Indian set-up. When, do you think, will be the right time to take that call on Jaiswal?
Well, if it were up to me, I’d chuck him in now. I think he is phenomenal. I think he’s proven his credentials, and I think he is the next superstar of Indian cricket. Him, Shubman Gill, these blokes have all the makings and stuff of being the next superstars of Indian cricket. And I think we need to find a space for someone like Yashasvi, simply because I think he’s not done it yet and he’s just beginning. I think he will be a record-maker even at the international level. And I think he’ll be one to watch out for the next 5, 7, 10, 15 years. I don’t know as long as he wants to play. As long as he keeps his head on his shoulders and remains humble and stays true to his roots, I’m certain he will reach massive heights in Indian and international cricket.
But if you look at it realistically, you’d have to say that post the One Day World Cup is when you’ll see him. And I have come to understand that there are a lot of India A tours in the next year or so. And I think you will see him and Rinku being a big part of all of that and then make the graduation into international cricket because I think that’s an important step as well before you graduate into international cricket.
You touched a little bit about the wholesale changes that you’d see on the Indian set-up post the World Cup. There’s one interesting take from a few former cricketers, experts on various platforms. That the T20 game has in a way moved on from the likes of Rohit, KL, and Virat. Your take on that?
Listen, I think we’ve tried going with experienced players in the past. Post the 2007 T20 World Cup, every T20 World Cup had a bunch of experienced players who go back in. And for some reason or the other, we’ve not made it right to the top. And I don’t think there’s any love lost in that sense to blood a young side with a slightly experienced captain and just set them free and have the least expectations and ask them to go have fun.
And I’m certain that a young bunch will go out there being really fresh in their mind and perform exceptionally well. So to an extent, I think that it could work. It certainly could. But it has to be a blend of decent experience and youth as well.
Finally, a bit about your experience of calling these matches on Jiocinema and a bit of insight how has been geo cinema’s coverage with the insiders and the hangouts feed and how it has been different from your regular feeds that call the game.
Well, for me, it’s been a fantastic experience. I’m still at a very nascent stage of my broadcasting career. Just literally begun, I think. In this short time, I’ve worked in different places and I have to say that this one has been the most enjoyable for me by far because we’re coming in day in and day out. And then every day, the work has been a lot of fun. I think what I really enjoy is the Insiders edition is very refreshingly different. It’s not the regular broadcast feed that you get. It’s a lot more insightful. There’s a lot more fun. There’s a lot more candour. So it’s really entertaining. It’s a lot of fun.
And at Viacom, I get to jump from studio to studio. So I go from Hindi to English to Kannada. I jump into to Tamil whenever there’s a CSK game happening, dip in for a couple of hours, say hello to the fans and the viewers, and have a conversation there with the other broadcasters. It’s a lot of fun. I’ve been having a lot of fun here. It’s been really entertaining and enjoyable.
And might as well dabble a bit of Malayalam as well if it comes up…
(Laughs) Yeah. But the Malayalam studio, unfortunately, is not in the same venue as the other studios that I’m at. So the Hindi, Tamil, Kannada and English are all in the same studio. Malayalam, unfortunately, is in another one. If that was there in the same studio, I promise you I would have been there as well.