MS Dhoni and Chennai Super Kings' Dad's Army: here we go again. Probably for one final time before this group is disbanded ahead of the scheduled mega auction in 2021, if it does take place.
Super Kings were once pilloried for packing their squad with players above 30 - and some even above 35 - but they proved that experience matters even in T20 cricket by marking their return from a two-year suspension in 2018 with their third title. In 2019, Shane Watson - bloodied knee and all - took Super Kings to within two runs of their fourth title.
The Covid-19 pandemic has struck the world since, Dhoni has retired from international cricket, and the Super Kings' slow-moving legs may have gotten even slower. Their most experienced player Suresh Raina and another IPL stalwart Harbhajan Singh have both pulled out of the tournament, citing personal reasons. Their first-choice seamer Deepak Chahar has recovered from coronavirus and has rejoined the Super Kings camp, but Ruturaj Gaikwad, the Maharashtra and India A batsman who had been talked up as Raina's replacement at No.3, is yet to clear the two mandatory Covid-19 tests.
Super Kings' designated death bowler Dwayne Bravo is coming into the IPL, having not bowled in the CPL final because of a knee complaint while Dhoni himself hasn't played competitive cricket since that World Cup 2019 semi-final against New Zealand.
There are more questions facing the team management ahead of their IPL 2020 campaign. Can Ambati Rayudu do the job at No. 3? Can they leave out IPL 2019's highest wicket-taker Imran Tahir in favour of a two-in-one player like Mitchell Santner and also play Piyush Chawla in the XI? Is there room for Sam Curran or Josh Hazlewood? Can Karn Sharma or the uncapped R Sai Kishore help plug the Singh-sized hole? Can Chahar still be effective after recovering from injury and then Covid-19? If the UAE pitches aren't as slow and spin-friendly as expected, can this attack adapt on the fly once again like they did in Pune in 2018? Can the older players hang onto their catches and not give up too many runs on the field?
Dhoni is no stranger to chaos, but this one seems to be of the highest order.
Super Kings, however, haven't (yet) called for replacements for Raina or Singh. They just don't like making changes and prefer continuity - even off the field. When their home games were moved out of Chepauk to Pune because of the Cauvery river water dispute in 2018, it is believed that their team bus in Chennai and their usual bus driver were also shifted to Pune.
Now, though, solutions might be a little more complicated.
Perhaps the most important problem is the No. 4 slot - and the answer might be for Dhoni to push himself up the order and take charge of the innings after Watson, Faf du Plessis, and Rayudu. During Super Kings' title win in 2018, he largely batted at No.5 or No.6, but now with Rayudu and Kedar Jadhav also rusty and nowhere near their best form, the onus might be on Dhoni to bat at No.4 even though he's a notoriously-slow starter, particularly against spin. In 86 T20s at No.4, Dhoni has struck at 142.87 and his strike rate at No.5 (142.02) is similar after 97 T20s in that position.
Are those hands still fast? Is that troublesome back holding up well? In the March camp earlier this year in Chennai, Dhoni tested them out by keeping at the nets - something that was rare even at the India nets - and also launched five leg-side sixes off five balls. It was a throwback to the days at the Chepauk nets when he would treat Muttiah Muralitharan and R Ashwin with similar disdain.
In IPL 2018, some of that big-hitting was on display when Dhoni went after an attempted wide yorker from Mohammed Siraj and scythed it flat over point for six in Bengaluru. Super Kings coach Stephen Fleming called it "one of the top-three shots" he had ever seen. However, it remains to be seen if Dhoni can reprise that power-hitting after a prolonged, pandemic-induced break.
"Are those hands still fast? Is that troublesome back holding up well? In the March camp earlier this year in Chennai, Dhoni tested them out by keeping at the nets - something that was rare even at the India nets - and also launched five leg-side sixes off five balls. It was a throwback to the days at the Chepauk nets when he would treat Muttiah Muralitharan and R Ashwin with similar disdain."
Batting brawn aside, Dhoni's strength is his leadership and Super Kings will bank on his brains and instinct to mask the absence of their other key players. In an interview with ESPNcricinfo, Michael Hussey, Super Kings' batting coach, explained how Dhoni brings the best out of his team-mates in the IPL.
"I think he has a fair understanding of how a winning team works and how to put together a winning team," Hussey had said. "Even if you have had a number of innings when you haven't performed, he would still keep picking you and showing that faith in you. That gives you enormous faith in yourself… You believe that you want to go out there and play for him."
Take Chahar's example. He's a player who has thrived under Dhoni's captaincy at Super Kings and is now a world-record holder. At Rising Pune Supergiant, Fleming had initially identified Chahar as a batting allrounder after he had struck the ball cleanly at practice. However, injuries meant Chahar could play only five matches across two seasons in 2016 and 2017. Dhoni, though, brought him into the Super Kings set-up in 2018 and used him as a swing bowler in the Powerplay. In 2019, Chahar doubled up as their death bowler when Bravo was injured. In 2018 in Pune, Dhoni had also used Chahar as a pinch-hitter at No.6 to surprise Kings XI Punjab.
In the same season in the qualifier against Sunrisers Hyderabad, Dhoni didn't use his premier offspinner Singh at all, despite the presence of three left-handers in the opposition's top five. Super Kings still came away with a two-wicket victory and made the final. Some of Dhoni's decisions defy data and popular opinion, but they bring results for Super Kings.
It was Dhoni who plumped for experience when Super Kings put their squad together for their comeback in 2018. That experience enabled them to beat the odds in 2018 and almost repeat the feat in 2019.
After that crazy final in 2019, Fleming admitted that Super Kings would have to "recreate" their ageing side at some point. Dhoni will turn 40 next year, but N Srinivasan, the vice-chairman and managing director of India Cements, owners of the Super Kings franchise, has reiterated that he will be retained by them ahead of the big auction planned for 2021.
So, IPL 2020 could well be Dhoni's last ride with Super Kings' Dad's Army. The build-up has been bumpy, but if Dhoni shakes off the rust swiftly, things could end smoothly, just like 2018.