Hope is a good thing. This famous line from the movie The Shawshank Redemption has never been so apt collectively to mankind in the last 26 years since its release. The year 2020 has taught everyone to keep the hope alive. So is the case for Chennai Super Kings in this IPL. Not often, we find CSK at the bottom of the points table after four games losing three consecutive matches. Last time they lost three matches on the trot was in 2014.
Whenever the IPL has moved out of India, CSK have not made it to the final. Those two instances (2009 and 2014) could be a coincidence. If CSK does not qualify to the top four this time around, it will not be a coincidence. It would be because of some inherent flaws, how the team has shaped up in the last 3 years along with some current unavoidable circumstances.
SHIFTING OF IPL TO THE UAE
Shifting of the IPL to the UAE this year has had the maximum impact on CSK's prospects. Among other things, CSK has built a team that helps them win matches at the sluggish Chepauk pitch. Since 2015, they have won 80% of their matches at home. Playing half of the matches at home provided them with a definite spot in the top four.
The other factors that helped CSK to dominate the IPL are also related to the conditions they play at Chepauk. Among the 11 grounds that have hosted minimum 10 IPL matches since 2015, Chepauk is the most spin-friendly wicket. Keeping that in mind, CSK management roped in two ageing but master spinners in Imran Tahir and Harbhajan Singh to their team in 2018.
Led by the astute strategist and reader of the game MS Dhoni who has a flair of getting the best out of available resources, Harbhajan and Tahir had very specific roles in the team and their success. While Harbhajan bowled mostly in the powerplay and middle overs, Tahir took charge in the middle overs. Both of them operated at an economy of below 8 runs per over, drying up opposition runs.
In addition, CSK’s middle order (batting position 3-7) have the second-best batting average (29.08) against spinners among all teams just behind KKR (33.4) in the last two seasons. While CSK spinners were chocking opposition batsmen, their middle-order batsmen were able to milk opposition spinner to their advantage.
IT NEVER RAINS BUT IT POURS
This IPL, CSK suffered many setbacks ahead of their campaign. 12 of its contingent including bowler Deepak Chahar tested COVID positive, which extended their quarantine period and disrupted their pre-tournament preparation. Harbhajan Singh who did not travel to the UAE with the CSK unit initially pulled out of the IPL due to personal reason subsequently. The biggest jolt CSK suffered was when Suresh Raina - part of the squad that travelled to the UAE - pulled out of the tournament citing personal reasons.
Raina’s absences created the biggest void for CSK in the top order. Without a like for like replacement, CSK’s struggle in the top order batting is already evident. Ambati Rayudu who scored a match-winning 71 off 48 in the inaugural match against Mumbai Indians suffered a hamstring injury and missed the next two games.
CRUMBLING TOP ORDER
Currently, CSK’s top-order batting is their weakest department. Shane Watson played just 16 T20 matches between 2019 and 2020 IPL with an extended break of six months. Since 2018, Watson has got out 22 times inside the powerplay from 36 matches with a strike rate of 112. Murali Vijay, who played three matches in the last two season of IPL, has the responsibility of opening with Watson this IPL. None of the CSK top 3 batsmen have a strike rate of over 115 since 2018 in the powerplay. Along with Watson’s 112, Vijay has a strike rate of 100 in 6 innings and Faf du Plessis 114 in 21 innings.
The absence of Suresh Raina at the top has aggravated CSK’s case when it comes to accelerating the run rate upfront. Ruturaj Gaikwad is in his first season of IPL and has just recovered from COVID 19. Kedar Jadhav who scored 162 runs in 12 innings last year with an average of 18 and strike rate of 95, is batting at the crucial position of number 4 and 5 this year. In this IPL, CSK has the 2nd lowest strike rate and lowest average in the powerplay.
THE DAD'S ARMY
The average age of CSK’s playing XI that took the field on 2nd October against SRH at Dubai is 33 years and 77 days. Though MS Dhoni looks bulky and strong after the prolonged break from cricket, probably for the first time he was seen visibly struggling during the last two overs of the run chase apart from not being able to middle the balls. Six core players in the playing XI are at the other side of the 35 age group. Despite the tag of Dad’s Army, CSK has been the most successful team since they rebuilt the team after 2018.
HOPE AGAINST HOPE
After two years since their comeback to IPL, the Dad’s Army is at a crucial juncture of their existence where they look vulnerable with the lack of batting firepower at the top of the order. In the past, MS Dhoni’s inspirational leadership accompanied with individual brilliance at clutch situations have made the team the most successful franchise of the league. This time probably the management has taken it too far to rely on the core without reinforcing the unit with younger blood.
Hope is a good thing. But every good thing comes to an end.
As it was mentioned in the pre-tournament team preview with a veteran squad, no other team seems to have a grimmer future than CSK. They are a bubble that can burst in any season now. Will this be that season?