The role of the Steven Smith-MS Dhoni alliance in Rising Pune Supergiant’s surge to the final of the Indian Premier League 2017 is as undeniable as it has been beautiful.
At the start of the tenth edition of the IPL, no one would have expected the relationship to blossom as it has, especially after Dhoni was ejected from the seat at the helm of the team as inelegantly as he was.
Surely there was a better way to handle the situation, but the unceremonious sacking was taken surprisingly well by Dhoni. The ease with which arguably one of the greatest captains to ever play the game took the news calmed the nerves of those around. And what his graceful acceptance did was bring the attention back to cricket, and Pune were playing some excellent stuff.
Smith was the man in charge and Dhoni his more-than-able ally. Smith handled the bowlers and the batting order, while Dhoni placed the field and offered plenty from an endless pool of stored-up information and knowledge. The combination, not too different from a one-two sent out from muscle memory, took out team after team with surgical precision to guide Pune to their maiden final.
Having played alongside Dhoni in 2008 for Chennai Super Kings before taking over as coach of the same side, Stephen Fleming has a lot to say on the Dhoni method. He hasn’t spent nearly as much time working with Smith the skipper, but given the New Zealander’s astute reading of the game and the people that come with it, there’s no one out there who can draw a better comparison and assess how they operate on the field.
“They’re both fine leaders and that comes with performance,” said Fleming. “Arguably, both are the best in their position. Certainly MS for a long period of time, and Steve is right up there if not the best batsman in the world at the moment. Performance is key.”
Smith has 421 runs – his best performance in six seasons – at an average of 38.27 in 2017.
Dhoni has 280 runs – his lowest single season aggregate in ten years – at an average of 28.
Fleming’s point isn’t about the numbers, though. It’s about executing the given role, and in that respect both have achieved success to varying degrees. But irrespective of their day with the bat or on the field, the two men have shepherded a bunch of players not many expected the moon from into winners.
Communication, Fleming insisted, has been the key in a partnership that has been the catalyst to an impressive evolution.
“It’s just good communication between the two of them. They have been outstanding. Much had been made of their relationship (before the season started) but certainly sitting with them it’s nothing but influential to the younger players and beneficial for the senior players and for me,” he explained.
“It has been a great dynamic to be a part of. This is the first time I am working with Steve and I have enjoyed it thoroughly. From a leadership point of view, we have a big challenge ahead, but we’ve faced a lot of challenges throughout this tournament and we’ve faced them well.”
The next challenge, the final one, is also the trickiest of the lot.
Facing Mumbai Indians in the final at the Rajiv Gandhi International Stadium in Uppal isn’t going to be easy. Pune have reason to be confident, having won all their three exchanges so far this season. but Fleming didn’t want to make a song and dance about it.
“We’re quietly confident, pretty much like our entire campaign where we have flown under the radar and done things quietly. I don’t think we’ll do anything different when we get up (pauses) if we get up on the podium because there’ll be a couple of willy foxes who’ll be trying to stop us. They’re well awake now (laughs).”
The last 4 months here in India have been incredible. There has been some ups and downs along the way but I've learnt such a great deal. The Test matches were tough but so enjoyable to be apart of. I've met some wonderful people, and I've made some new friends. The IPL and playing with Pune has been a terrific experience and I look forward to spending my last night here in India battling it out in the Final. Thank you to everyone here in India that has made this trip so unforgettable. #grateful #opportunity ✌????️????????????????
That was Fleming’s cheeky take on Mahela Jayawardene, the Mumbai coach, stating earlier that the Pune loss in Qualifier 1 was the wake-up call they needed.
Fleming has seen Mumbai in the final enough times since taking over coaching duties of the now-defunct Chennai side to crack a joke or two even at a time like this.
Dhoni would too, and that, among several other things, is what makes the Fleming-Dhoni combo tick. Dhoni and Smith don’t share the same equation, it would be foolhardy to expect that after just two seasons together, but they have found a semblance of it and it stems from a deep respect for the game and each other.
With Pune’s IPL contract coming to an end this season, this could be the last time Dhoni and Smith work in tandem. All good things come to end. So pay heed to Fleming and “sit back to enjoy the view”.