What a journey it has been!

After leading Chennai Super Kings to the title in IPL-3, Dhoni turned towards his ecstatic team-mates and said: "Thank you guys, thanks for everything. I just hope we stay together next year too though there will be a fresh auction."

Chennai Super Kings' road to victory was fraught with hurdles. Caught in a fine wedge between extravagant victories and nerve-wracking defeats, Dhoni and his men surmounted their problems with fortitude and poise before pulling off a remarkable victory against the mighty Mumbai Indians in the final. By K. C. Vijaya Kumar.

Mahendra Singh Dhoni's aura might touch the horizon and find space in the Chennai-ite's heart that is often reserved for Indian cricket's seemingly eternal feel-good warrior Sachin Tendulkar.

As Dhoni and his merry band from Chennai Super Kings held aloft the glittering DLF Indian Premier League Trophy well past midnight at Mumbai's Dr. D. Y. Patil Stadium, Chennai was wide awake and agog right from the Marina beach to the by-lanes in Mylapore, where elderly gentlemen discuss a classical off-break and a Carnatic music kriti with equal felicity.

Dhoni is many things to his many fans: a dispenser of batting mayhem despite the visible slow-down following his elevation to the Indian captain's slot; ‘King of Cool' amidst raging storms though at times he can whip up a typhoon with his bat. But more than all that he remains an astute captain with the Midas touch. A man who leads from the front and yet remains indebted to his troops.

After leading Chennai Super Kings to the title in IPL-3, Dhoni turned towards his ecstatic team-mates and said: “Thank you guys, thanks for everything. I just hope we stay together next year too though there will be a fresh auction.”

The Key men... Suresh Raina

The key to his abiding ability to reap in success is linked to his talent to simplify things and not get bogged down with the paraphernalia. During the presentation ceremony, he told Ravi Shastri, “Well, it is just a game.” And Shastri quickly replied: “You are being modest, it is not just a game, it is the final!”

The captain's coolness quotient had obviously rubbed on to his team-mates, who held their nerve on the big stage unlike the host Mumbai Indians and emerged triumphant by 22 runs.

It was not an easy journey though; the climb to the summit was by a slippery slope. Caught in a fine wedge between extravagant victories and nerve-wracking defeats as was evident in the super-over loss to Kings XI Punjab in the league phase, Chennai Super Kings had to literally scale a mountain at Dharamshala, fringed by the mighty Himalayas, in a do-or-die match on April 18. After Kings XI Punjab finished with 192 for three and Chennai Super Kings struggled in the chase despite the fine efforts by Suresh Raina and S. Badrinath, Dhoni (54 n.o., 29b, 5x4, 2x6) made the 29 runs required in the last two overs look as easy as polishing off an ice cream under the Chennai sun.

In a rare display of emotion, Dhoni clenched his fist and punched his helmet after pounding Irfan Pathan for the winning runs and later said: “The team owners have pumped in so much money and the least we can do is to get to the semifinals. After that, it is anybody's game.”

Dough Bollinger

Having sneaked in with seven victories from 14 league games and a better run-rate, the force was with Chennai Super Kings and even last year's champion Deccan Chargers failed to halt Dhoni's men in the semifinals.

A total of 142 was defended with a tigerish zeal while the potent opening-overs combine of off-spinner R. Ashwin and left-arm seamer Doug Bollinger (four for 13) forced the Deccan Chargers batsmen into mute mode. A 38-run victory was registered and in the final, Chennai Super Kings toppled tournament favourite Mumbai Indians. Though Tendulkar braved the pain of an injured hand and played, it was Dhoni who had the last laugh in the battle of captains. While Tendulkar and Mumbai Indians' think-tank inexplicably sent in Kieron Pollard at number eight, Dhoni had his answers, placing Matthew Hayden at straight mid-off to pocket the straight swat.

Dhoni may have been the talisman that helped Chennai Super Kings forget its last-ball defeat to Rajasthan Royals in the final of the inaugural edition in 2008, but there were others too who chipped in with critical performances. Raina, who stepped in briefly as captain when Dhoni was injured, did his reputation no harm with a kitty of 520 runs at a strike-rate of 142.85. He also turned his arm over and plucked some brilliant catches like the one he effected to dismiss Saurabh Tiwary in the final. Hayden rightly pointed out to Raina's effervescence that lifts the team. “More than his batting and his fielding, it is his spirit that is special,” he said.

Hayden said the spirit was evident in Raina's unbeaten 57 in the final that earned him the Man of the Match award. The left-hander, who was marked out by Wisden a few years ago as a player for the future, will benefit from the added confidence gained through his exploits in the IPL while the Indian team gears up for the ICC World Twenty20 in the West Indies.

Among the support cast, S. Badrinath too proved to be an eager beaver with the bat (356 runs) as well as on the field. Though he may not have garnered the visibility that his peers did there was no denying his contribution to Chennai Super Kings.

The surprise packet though was Murali Vijay, who broke through the stereotype of being a classy batsman pigeonholed for Tests.

Mahendra Singh Dhoni.

Vijay proved that runs can be plundered with grace and his 39-ball 78 against Royal Challengers Bangalore and his 56-ball 127 against Rajasthan Royals stretched the vocal chords of a boisterous crowd at the M. A. Chidambaram Stadium, his home turf. His catches in the deep with its touch of patience and showmanship also pointed to a talent that is cut out for the big stage.

Chennai Super Kings' charming ride into the last-four stage was also helmed by the contrasting pair of Ashwin and Bollinger. The duo that teamed up in the later half of the tournament was a blend of fire and ice and kept the rival opening batsmen in check.

Ashwin, with an inscrutable expression, never wavered despite bowling to proven destroyers like Adam Gilchrist and Tendulkar and his split-second pause in his final delivery stride often forced the batsmen to recalibrate their bat speed and feet movement. The off-spinner (13 wickets at an economy rate of 6.10) is a tough competitor and will remain an asset for whichever team he plays in the future.

Bollinger (12 wickets, 6.67) kept probing away at the batsmen and though he was carted for 22 runs by Pollard in a crucial over in the final, the Aussie kept his nerve. He may have joined the party late but his senior colleague Matthew Hayden (346 runs), who was intrinsic to Chennai Super Kings' campaign right through the season, suffered the batting horrors despite the Mongoose bat and a fiery 93 against Delhi Daredevils. Luckily for the Chennai team, the fine form of Raina, Vijay, Badrinath and Dhoni camouflaged the burly opener's lean trot.

A long-winding journey has wound to a close and despite the raging off-field issues that plagued the IPL, Dhoni and his men with their David-quelling-Goliath act against Mumbai Indians proved that the tournament with its mix of high intensity and unpredictable results, can sustain itself. And for the Chennai fans, it is time to bring out the drums and break into a ‘tappan-guthu', a high energy dance form that courses through the southern metro's streets. Dhoni and his team deserve the adulation and they owe their success to the most cricket-literate city in India — Chennai.