For the first time in the last decade of the Indian Premier League’s history, the points table has been turned on its head, quite literally. Thus, forcing a former champion team to come up midway with a decision few will publicly label as bizarre. Coming from the Chennai Super Kings, the demotion of Ravindra Jadeja is a signal that the team cannot see beyond Dhoni for a suitable leader to take their game forward and have little faith in their own quarters.

For a tournament propagated as youth-centric pointing in the direction of Indian cricket’s untapped future, handing the captaincy from Ravindra Jadeja to Mahendra Singh Dhoni seems contrary to that agenda and also mirrors the conundrum faced by Indian cricket’s leadership over the past year.

While the Chennai Super Kings fans celebrated the decision to revert to long time captain, Dhoni, on the eve of Chennai’s match against Sunrisers Hyderabad team, with the team scoring a win after the latter lost their way in the chase of 202 runs, there were alarm bells going off in the background. Was this Indian cricket drama playing out again? Albeit on a smaller scope but with a rather tangible, perceptible impact that could affect Indian cricket in the long run?

Handed over the helm publicly only two days prior to the commencement of IPL season 2022, it was suggested that Jadeja had now relinquished the captaincy of the Chennai Super Kings of his own volition, while also, alleged by none other than Dhoni that Jadeja had not prepared himself for a job he was reportedly given behind closed doors a year ago.

But the twist in the tale doesn’t end here. Look closely at the statement released by the Chennai Super Kings: “Ravindra Jadeja has decided to relinquish captaincy to focus and concentrate more on his game and has requested MSD. MSD has agreed to lead CSK in the larger interest and to allow Jadeja to focus on his game.”

If Jadeja, made the rather strange decision at this juncture – 45 matches of 70 matches being concluded - instead of seeing the team through to the end of the tournament, what strikes one right away is the eyebrow raising wording which seemed to suggest that the captaincy of the Chennai Super Kings is a barter between players and not a decision made by team management and hierarchy.

Shades of what has transpired in Indian cricket over the last six months were mirrored in what is happening at the Chennai Super Kings. Much like the situation with Virat Kohli, Jadeja was being asked to fill big boots of Dhoni and without the providential hand of someone as influential as N. Srinivasan behind him. Although N. Srinivasan has been publicly reduced as only owner of the Chennai franchisee and no longer part of the BCCI administration, it is not hard to see factions and string pulling.

While several praised Dhoni’s characteristic in-depth answers to what he thought ailed the Chennai Super Kings and in particular Jadeja’s captaincy, there were some subtle ways in which the youngster was being undermined. Maybe a deliberate intention to deflect attention away from Chennai’s poor performances this year, or at the behest of someone who needs to keep the brand Chennai Super Kings high in perception, for image preservation purposes, even if it means throwing one of the star cricketers under the bus for the failings of the team.

For a team that has won three IPL championships, and prides itself on being one of the most humble teams with one of India’s most successful captains at the helm, it does not bode well for succession plans that Chennai does not seem to have enough faith in their own contingent. It does not bode well, to thrust another youngster, even after Jadeja, with the onerous task and then to revert to the veteran whose retirement has been a matter of speculation for the past couple of years.

Chennai would secretly surmise that they did not expect the fiasco involving Suresh Raina to upset their apple cart last year when it comes to keeping succession in-house. Suresh Raina, Harbhajan Singh, Ravindra Jadeja. This pattern seems to suggest that the Chennai Super Kings is not the best place for India regulars where the aura of an individual (N. Srinivasan or MS Dhoni, take your pick) is perhaps too large for any one else to outshine or even find his own niche in a leadership role.

With Ruturaj Gaikwad struggling for form in the early stages and Faf du Plessis’ exit exposing Chennai’s over reliance on the former South African captain, Chennai needs an image overhaul. This reversal of captaincy charge coupled with only their third win this season might have appeased their aggravated fans for the moment. But it does little for the health or image of Indian cricket when it comes to grooming and nursing the talent.

Even someone of the size of a robust attitude like Kohli was brought to his knees and forced to wash dirty linen in public, and throw slander back on the door of the BCCI when under pressure to be compared with Dhoni. And then forcibly ousted because of overwhelming favour of another who is older than Kohli in age when Indian cricket might have been better served with grooming a youngster for the job on the job. But there was none the administrators were willing to put their faith in.

Ironically, the Board of Control for Cricket in India and the Chennai Super Kings need better PR management teams because if the feelers thrown to the media revolved around the lack of trophies under Kohli’s belt as the captain of Indian cricket team and the Royal Challengers Bangalore, the fall from grace could not be harder for Rohit Sharma. Sharma, after finding himself leading India across all formats after much drama earlier this year, cannot seem to get his Mumbai Indians team off the bottom of the barrel.

Suffering an image tumble

Now Jadeja seems to be suffering an image tumble. This is in contrast to his rapid rise in the eyes of the late Shane Warne at the Rajasthan Royals in the IPL’s inaugural season. The youngster rose in the eyes of the franchisee not only as an allrounder, dubbed “The Rockstar”, but also, as someone with leadership material. Dhoni’s suggestion of Jadeja being “spoon fed” speaks as much of the Chennai Super Kings and Dhoni as it does of Jadeja.

Dhoni is a nuanced speaker who has built his reputation on the merit of his own cool leadership skills, composed but belligerent batting prowess and his ability to either highlight or throw shade in the most subtle manner. While there was a masterclass quality to how Dhoni explained the intricate demands of captaincy, there was also a feeling at the post match press conference that this was also possibly a chosen misdirection, throwing everything including the kitchen sink at Jadeja’s mental state, vis-à-vis his leadership to explain why the wheels got stuck at the Chennai Super Kings.

Greater men than Jadeja have suffered bouts of self-doubt and fall from grace. Jadeja is only in his early days as captain. Yet Dhoni had no qualms going on about Jadeja’s captaincy skills or rather the lack of it while explaining why the change of guard had become necessary: “I think Jadeja knew last season he'd be captaining this year. For the first two games, I oversaw his work and let him be later. After that, I insisted he'd take his own decisions and responsibility for them. Once you become captain, it means a lot of demands come in. But it affected his mind as the tasks grew. I think captaincy burdened his prep and performances. He knew and got enough time to prepare. What is important is you want him to lead the side and I wanted that transition to happen. At the end of the season, you don't want him to feel as if the captaincy was done by someone else and I'm just going for the toss.

“So, it was a gradual transition. Spoon-feeding doesn't really help the captain. On the field you have to take those crucial decisions and you have to take responsibility for those decisions. Once you become the captain, we have to take care of a lot many things and that also includes your own game. Even if you relieve captainship and if you are at your best, that's what we want. We were also losing a great fielder. We are struggling for a deep mid-wicket fielder. Still, we have dropped 17-18 catches and that's a matter of concern.”

It is not hard to see why there is now a growing feeling that Jadeja has been made a scapegoat for all that ails at the Chennai Super Kings.

Remember that Dhoni was chosen as the mentor for the Indian cricket team for the ICC Twenty20 World Cup that also, seemed to suggest that the BCCI not only had no faith in Kohli but also, wanted to paint Kohli as being an inept leader who relied on outside minds. The game plan was obvious even if it goes down as one of the more shameful, sad episodes in Indian cricket.

If all of this is not befuddling at best, why would Chennai go back to the drawing board, unless they now see the financial blunder is having invested in retaining Jadeja for 15 crore rupees while Dhoni was retained for only 12?

What this will do going forward is possibly desist players and captains-in-waiting from talking to their leadership peer group for fear of being undermined in the public eye. This is where the lines between succession planning, mentoring and “spoon feeding” blur, making for a dangerous proposition because no player wants to come off vulnerable, knowing it could be used against him.

Would not someone of the calibre of Dhoni, despite being an orator who speaks his mind, seek to protect someone Chennai see as leading their team in the future? Unless that player has already dropped rungs from that assumption within the franchisee? Will the player wake up and are there more skeletons in the closet?

When asked at the toss if he would return for the Chennai Super Kings for the 2023 IPL edition, Dhoni merely replied, “You will definitely see me in a yellow jersey. Whether it is this jersey or some other, you will have to wait and watch.”

Notice the irony. Dhoni maintained a stoic silence when asked about his own ambitions. Why then go so deep into revealing Jadeja’s so-called flaws? Would it not be handing an obvious chink into the hands of the opposition, already with their hooks into the team? More importantly, what does it do for the morale of the rest of the team and not just the player?

This seems to suggest not so much about Dhoni’s willingness or keenness to keep playing as much as to keep the Chennai team afloat; whether as a matter of quid-pro-quo to N. Srinivasan is open for conjecture.

In this do-or-die scenario, Chennai could still turn this ship around under Dhoni. But unwanted drama over the past couple of seasons, the mystery surrounding Dhoni and this latest mishap has already eaten into Chennai’s image. It exposed that the strings that are being pulled at the franchisee are not all that dissimilar from how the Indian cricket team has been run at the BCCI.

The fact of the matter is that there has been next to nothing for Chennai to cheer about. This was not a bold faced move as some would like to sell it. This was a desperate attempt to stem the tide, for the time being, not just on the field but also, in public perception, until a more permanent solution can be found.

There are shades of what has happened in Indian cricket in the past year with what is happening with the Chennai Super Kings. And this cannot be good news just as it was not when Dhoni was appointed mentor for the ICC Twenty20 World Cup last year in a wicked chess game that all but signalled the end of Virat Kohli’s tryst not with Indian cricket but with the behemoths who run cricket administration in the country.

“Becoming too big for his boots,” was the surmise behind boardroom doors while the ouster of Kohli was plotted. That it unfolded in a manner that unravelled the plotters as well in the bargain is another matter altogether. Similar conjecture was made for why Suresh “taking his place for granted” Raina and the Chennai Super Kings had the most awkward falling out, a messy divorce that played behind closed doors but didn’t stop tongues from wagging.

Although not in the same vein, there might have been a similar conjecture that Jadeja did not quite fill the boots of the task required at the Chennai camp, which is not only to maintain a winning record but also, to maintain an aura of invincibility and more importantly, the illusion of bonhomie.

“Not there yet,” some might have said more cautiously. But those would not be the voices heard above the pandemonium of popular opinion. The IPL is the one place where even the more renowned of commentators trade their knowledge, wisdom and sublime oratory skills, and stake their well built reputations for loud, scripted lines to pre-planned tastes, depending on the flavour of the season.

Image is everything. The brand needs to be preserved, at all costs, particularly when there are two new teams knocking on the door in a burgeoning market and upsetting the apple cart, at least on the leaderboard to begin with. So, the return of a 40-year-old captain in a tournament that was sold as a way to promote the untapped talent of the youth in the country, while not a good sign for Indian cricket, presently keeps the sharks at bay.

IPL 2022: 5 changes CSK should make to get back to winning ways