At the stadium, on railway platforms, in the heat, in the rain, cricket fans had waited for more than 48 hours for this: Mahendra Singh Dhoni bat. With talk of his retirement looming large, the talismanic Chennai Super Kings (CSK) skipper walked to the crease, past 1 am, in the Indian Premier League (IPL) 2023 final against Gujarat Titans (GT) with his team needing 22 runs off 14 balls. It was time for the game’s greatest finisher to take charge.
Instead, Dhoni spooned a catch to extra cover; caught David Miller bowled Mohit Sharma for a golden duck. The near-capacity crowd at the Narendra Modi Stadium in Ahmedabad were stunned into silence. Dhoni, who had been stone-faced through the evening, shook his head as he walked back to the pavilion.
Dhoni’s dismissal was a rare moment of disquiet in a tournament that relentlessly played to the gallery for almost two months. Having kicked into high gear with Rinku Singh’s blitz of five sixes off five balls, IPL 2023 ended with more last over drama.
Ever since it was established in 2008, IPL, the world’s most lucrative T20 league, has always been a run-fest. But this year it has gone bigger and bolder than ever before. Teams breached the 200-mark 37 times, the most in a single season. On eight occasions, teams successfully chased down a target of 200 or more—Mumbai Indians (MI), who eventually lost in Qualifier 2, alone won four of those. Another all-time record was that 16 matches ended with a combined tally of more than 400 runs.
In the rain-delayed final, which was scheduled for Sunday but eventually ended on Tuesday morning, GT put up 214 for four on the board, the highest in an IPL final. CSK, chasing an adjusted target of 171 off 15 overs, kept themselves in the hunt with almost every batter making a meaningful contribution. GT captain Hardik Pandya handed the ball to Sharma, the best bowler on the evening, for the final over. Sharma has fashioned a career comeback this IPL season, and had kept CSK in check with subtle changes in pace and length. He conceded only three runs off the first four balls. But with CSK needing 10 runs off the last two balls, Ravindra Jadeja took charge. The southpaw struck a six down the ground and then sent a wayward full-toss to the leg-side boundary to set up a thrilling win.
Triumphant Chennai has now equalled Mumbai Indians’ tally of five IPL titles. Like their ‘Captain Cool’, CSK had finished the League stronger than they had started. They lost to Gujarat in the opening match of the season, also in Ahmedabad, and finished second, behind the defending champions, in the group stage. Gujarat may have had the momentum, but Chennai had the pedigree. In the playoffs, CSK won both their encounters against Gujarat to seal the title.
During the trophy ceremony, all eyes were trained on Dhoni. Since the start of the season, there has been speculation over whether this will be his final IPL—the only official cricket he plays now. Already a popular figure due to his time with the national team, Dhoni has ridden a wave of support, bordering on worship, this season. “If you see, it's the best time to announce the retirement. The fans have showed me a lot of love. The easy thing for me to say is thank you and retire,” the 41-year-old said after the title triumph.
“But the hard thing to do is to work hard for nine months and try to play one more IPL season. The body has to hold up. But the amount of love I have received from CSK fans, it would be a gift for them to play one more season. The way they've shown their love and emotion, it's something I need to do for them. It's the last part of my career. It started over here and the full house was chanting my name. It was the same thing in Chennai, but it will be good to come back and play whatever I can.”
Over the past few years, Dhoni’s contributions with the bat have waned. This season he scored only 104 runs in 16 innings, but the influence he wields over his team is still immense. His composure even in the most high-pressure situations is almost peerless. On Monday, when CSK were fumbling on the field and dropped a regulation catch off danger man Shubhman Gill, Dhoni stepped up to the task. As Jadeja got the ball to drift slightly away from Gill, Dhoni collected the ball and completed the stumping before the batter had followed through with his shot. TV analysis concluded that Dhoni’s reaction time had been 0.1 seconds. He had just created the breakthrough his team was looking for.
While the former India captain still hasn’t revealed plans for retirement, the one Chennai player who did play his final IPL match was Ambati Rayudu. The 37-year-old had announced that he would be retiring after the final. And the batter got his fairy-tale finish: Not only did his team win the title but he made a valuable contribution of 19 off eight balls.
The talk of Dhoni’s retirement may have dominated IPL 2023, but it was the new talent —from Rinku Singh to Akash Madhwal—that brought the League alive. It started with the unheralded Singh scripting the most unlikely of comebacks. Chasing a target of 205 against Gujarat, Kolkata Knight Riders (KKR) needed 29 off the last over. The left-handed Singh plundered five sixes off the last five balls from Yash Dayal, his and KKR’s confidence rising with each hit, to take his team to victory. It was the most number of runs a chasing team had scored in the final over of a T20 game.
The miracle finish turned the 25-year-old, whose father Khanchandra used to deliver LPG gas cylinders, into an overnight star. For years, Singh, who has four brothers, had harboured the cricket dream, even though his father wanted him to study rather than play a game cluttered with competition.
IPL 2023 also saw Rajasthan Royals’ Yashasvi Jaiswal (639 runs in 14 innings), Gujarat’s Sai Sudharsan (362 off eight innings), Mumbai Indians’ Tilak Varma (343 in 11 innings) and Chennai Super Kings’ Ruturaj Gaikwad (590 in 16 innings) and Shivam Dube (418 in 16 innings) make a mark. Though Jaiswal was not an unknown quantity, he battled back from a dud 2022 season to score his first IPL 100 in a high-stakes game against Mumbai and was the lead run-scorer for his team.
While the odds are heavily loaded in favour of the batters in the League, Mumbai’s Akash Madhwal proved bowlers can turn matches too. The Uttarakhand bowler, an engineer who only played tennis-ball cricket till 2018, claimed five wickets for five runs to guide Mumbai to victory in the Eliminator against Lucknow Super Giants. This is now the joint-best figure by a bowler in the IPL, equalling Indian legend Anil Kumble’s 5 for 5 for Royal Challengers Bangalore in 2009.
The latter half of the season, however, belonged to Gill. The 23-year-old scored three hundreds in the last five matches of the League and almost helped his team to a second-successive title. Piling on the runs without ever looking rushed, Gill’s 129 against Mumbai in Qualifier 2 was one of the finest knocks of the season. He finished with the League-highest (Orange Cap) of 890 runs in 17 matches. Gill also became only the third player, after Virat Kohli and Jos Buttler, to hit more than two hundreds in an IPL season.
As younger, more ambitious talent keeps rising through the ranks, the IPL is getting more explosive every year.
Deepti Patwardhan is a Mumbai-based sportswriter.