After being questioned at the start of the season on whether he deserved a place in the Rising Pune Supergiant team, MS Dhoni reminded everyone of his importance when it mattered the most. The former Rising Pune Supergiant skipper, ousted as captain before the season started, slammed 40 off just 26 balls to propel the Pune side to their maiden final in the Indian Premier League (IPL).
RPS defeated table-toppers Mumbai Indians by 20 runs on their home turf with utmost ease, thanks to the two-time IPL champion.
The Sanjiv Goenka-owned franchise had a shaky start to their innings after they were put in to bat by MI skipper Rohit Sharma. The match venue, Wankhede, has really small boundaries and with dew later in the night it was extremely critical for them to post a big total.
The batters, however, seemed unaware of the danger at hand. RPS lost Rahul Tripathi and captain Steve Smith inside the first two overs with only nine runs on the board. India vice-captain Ajinkya Rahane played a mature innings of 56 off 43 deliveries and added 80 runs with Manoj Tiwary to stabilise things. Tiwary (58 off 48 balls) was also doing all he could but in the absence of mercurial all-rounder Ben Stokes the acceleration didn't come.
The duo added 80 runs before Rahane got out to Karn Sharma in the 13th over making way for MS Dhoni.
Cometh the hour, cometh the man
The wicketkeeper-batsman's performance with the bat has been under the scrutiny this whole IPL season. RPS owners' brother Harsh Goenka has been taking numerous digs at the player for his failures with the bat.
MSD has managed only 280 runs in the IPL this season at a strike-rate of 118.14 and has a single fifty to his name. So, when he walked in to bat at 89/3 with seven overs remaining it was obvious that people had their doubts - but Dhoni has immense confidence in his abilities.
He believes in the saying that "what doesn't kill you makes you stronger" - and Dhoni seemed determined to silence his critics. The finisher was back at the Wankhede.
Dhoni began his innings typically, with only 17 off 14. But in his last 12 deliveries, he smacked the bowlers constantly out of the park to finish with 40 off 26 and helped RPS reach 162 in 20 overs. In the last two overs of the innings, Dhoni demolished Mitchell McClenaghan and Jasprit Bumrah - two of the best bowlers in the shortest format of the game.
A six over midwicket, a flat six over the head of the bowler. The innings had everything a Dhoni fan yearns for.
RPS' smith was full of praise for his former skipper.
"It was a big day and big players stepped up. I thought MS was magnificent in the end with Manoj Tiwary. Rahane batted beautifully at the start to give us a chance to have a launch pad at the end," said Smith during the post-match presentation.
Dhoni: The big game player
Dhoni has reached his 7th IPL final in 10 seasons of the cricket carnival. The most by any player. The former India captain has now played 18 play-off matches and has been on the winning side on 11 occasions.
With the latest win, Dhoni has been on the winning side as many as 5 times in 8 play-off matches against Mumbai Indians in the history of the league.
The veteran averages 64.67 against them in playoffs and his three highest scores have also come against them.
Dhoni the finisher might not be the same. His reflexes have slowed down, the bat swing is not as quick as before. But Dhoni the player has retained his habit of stepping up in the big games and yesterday was just another reminder of his prowess.