Barely 15 minutes into the first qualifier on Tuesday night, Rising Pune Supergiant were 9 for 2. At this point, the announcer at Wankhede Stadium screamed "Ra-haa-neee", probably expecting the crowd to cheer for the local boy even if he was playing for Mumbai Indians' opponent. His attempt was met with total silence; you could hear sweethearts exchange sweet nothings on Marine Drive outside the ground.
There was amiable applause when Ajinkya Rahane reached his half-century, but a louder cheer when he got out. It was hard to differentiate when the cheer for his dismissal transformed into one of welcome to MS Dhoni. And the cheer turned into a chant of "Dhooooni, Dhooooni" even before he had faced a ball. Pune were not on top here; they were on a shaky 89 for 3 in the 13th over. The blue flags of Mumbai were waving, but the chants were for Dhoni.
In Ben Stokes' absence from the lower order, the Pune top order was expected to step up. Instead, Rahul Tripathi got out for a duck and the run rate was under seven when Rahane departed for 56. Rohit Sharma brought on Jasprit Bumrah, who has a good T20 record against Dhoni, as soon as he came out to bat. Krunal Pandya and Mitchell McClenaghan came around the wicket to cramp Dhoni for room in the 16th and 17th overs to concede only four runs off six balls legitimate to him. Bumrah returned and Dhoni could barely connect, scoring only one run off the three balls he faced in the 18th over. Twelve balls to go, Pune 121 for 3.
The Dhoni we saw after that was the Dhoni the fans have been waiting for. Not Dhoni at his best, but Dhoni good enough to smash some of the best bowlers of the tournament. Mumbai's bowlers had done most of the work to restrict Pune to a sub-par score. Most, not all. Then they started making mistakes and Manoj Tiwary and Dhoni cashed in. While Tiwary received some width, Dhoni had some length balls coming his way and he dispatched three of those over the fence in the last two overs. Such was his connection, unlike earlier in the tournament, that even a back-of-length ball from Bumrah in the last over went flat over sweeper cover for six.
"If you see the last couple of games or even last year, he [Bumrah] has been successful against Dhoni," Mumbai's wicketkeeper-batsman Parthiv Patel said after the match. "He got him out in the last game here, with the kind of length which he was bowling [today]. He [Dhoni] obviously is a good player, so you've got to sometimes give it to the calibre of the batsman as well. Not taking away from Bumrah, he has been bowling brilliantly throughout the tournament, but in a one-odd game like this you've got to give credit to someone who has played so many knocks like this."
The crowd left their seats each time a six reached them, they waved the Mumbai flag even to cheer for Dhoni's sixes. Tiwary and Dhoni clubbed 41 runs in the last two overs to lift Pune to 162 for 4, what Parthiv called a par score. Leading up to the game, fans and experts had been rightly pointing out Dhoni's low average and slow strike rate. Here, he battled that lack of form and, even though he didn't clear the boundary as often as he used to, he did it often enough to post a defendable score.
"These kind of things can happen in this format when a set batsman is batting, and someone like Dhoni is batting," Parthiv said of the last two overs. "Obviously we were in control, but I wouldn't say just because of those two overs we lost the game."
Tiwary, on the other hand, thought the direction of the match turned tangibly in Pune's favour in the last two overs of their innings. "Definitely, the momentum shifted in the last two overs," he said. "Initially, when I was batting with Ajinkya, there was a strategic time out where with the captain and coach, the four of us decided that we can take the total to 160. We felt that the wicket was pretty dry and it was holding for the spinners and pacers as well.
"We were struggling to put away the slower ones and the variations until the 19th and 20th, where MS bhai played outstanding shots and it was not easy against Bumrah. But he showed why he is such a highly talented player with so much of ability to hit bowlers in the IPL for two-three sixes in those crucial situations."
Pune were the undisputed underdog in this qualifier. They were playing their first playoff but they had Dhoni, who can write a book, and then another, on how to win knockout matches and lift trophies. It will be a pity, though, if Pune win one more match and lift the trophy, and Dhoni wins his third IPL, but we don't have the defending champions present next year.