“Playing for pride”, a favorite trope of commentators referring to teams that are out of the contest, is equally true of this contest between the two table toppers, both with identical points off an identical number of matches, and separated only by the net run rate.
Both have sealed their places in the playoffs. Given the structure of the qualifiers, teams that are ranked first and second have a huge advantage in that they get two chances to make the final - and at the time of writing this, DC and CSK are odds-on to remain top of the table.
What they play for today is consolidation. And pride. A dream contest, between two teams that are such polar opposites. CSK, the most stable of sides through the history of the IPL; DC, newly revamped, renamed, refurbished with a fresh coat of paint. CSK, slightingly referred to as Dad’s Army for their persistence with aging players; DC a vibrant, young, adrenaline-fueled outfit with a bias, at least in batting, towards fresh Indian talent. One side plays with the exuberance of youth; the other with the savvy, the muscle memory and institutional know-how, of experience.
Consider this: DC is led by a 24-year-old, the youngest captain in this edition of the IPL; one of its openers is a teenager; its impact batsman is just 21; its star bowler - and the best of its imports - is 24. It’s the kind of combination that could self-destruct easily - and it very nearly did. In its first five outings, DC went down to three defeats - and more often than not, it seemed that DC’s losses were due more to its own unbridled youth, to a penchant for playing with the careless abandon of kids on the first day of the summer holidays.
The turning point came when two decisions made before the tournament began bore fruit. The first was the introduction of Ricky Ponting as coach with Sourav Ganguly in support; the second was the trade that got them Shikhar Dhawan to open.
Dhawan, probably aware of the inexperience of his mates, played the first five games as if it were Tests. He tended to play out a lot of dot balls; it was either four or nothing. Ponting took Dhawan aside for a chat; the tenor of that talk is not known, but its contours are predictable: the experienced Aussie, who has been through such situations, likely told Dhawan to forget about trying to bat for his mates, and to just be himself.
It was like a switch was tripped - Dhawan began opening out, playing with a flamboyance that reminded you of his entry on the international scene. And suddenly, everything clicked: Prithvi Shaw, freed of the pressure of having to make up for Dhawan’s slowness, began to settle into his own game. Shreyas Iyer, coming in at number three, playing not like a “responsible captain” but like the free-stroking batsman he is known to be. Rishabh Pant, whose adrenalin levels could cause cardiac surgeons to sit up and take notice, tempered down; word from within is that Ponting and Ganguly sat the youngster down and told him what John Wright had told Virender Sehwag in an earlier age: You don’t have to do it all in the first two balls; if you bat five, six overs, there is no one in the game who can come close to you. So, play your shots but be a tad more selective.
With the hitting skills of Colin Ingram - another out of the box pick that in retrospect has paid off quite well - behind Pant, Delhi settled into an all-conditions, all-weather top five. Particularly noticeable is Ingram’s skill in playing spin - against tweakers, he scores rapidly and almost never loses his wicket, making him a handy number five coming in towards the latter stages when bowlers are looking to contain rather than attack.
The fact that the young team has, after an indifferent start, settled into a well-drilled, well-coached unit led by a youngster who has visibly gained in stature, shows: In its last seven games, it has won six. DC won three on the bounce twice, with MI being the only team to hand it a defeat.
Against that, CSK has begun to show its age. Three of its last four games have ended in defeat (including one at home, in the fortress that is Chepauk, against Mumbai Indians). Its key players are either ill or recovering - Faf du Plessis, Ravi Jadeja and MS Dhoni missed the MI game through illness. It is collectively tiring, the result of the relentless grind on people no longer in their prime.
This is where its institutional memory, its collective experience, will begin to come in handy. If Dhoni is fit (and with less than half a day to go for the start, his ability to start is still in doubt), he knows exactly what buttons to push against his young opponents; he is a master at slowing things down and preying on the impatience of the inexperienced.
The home grounds of both teams tend to be low, and slow, so both sides know how to handle such conditions. Ironically, the MAC got a makeover after MS Dhoni’s trenchant criticism of the pitches that were initially on offer. Taking advantage of a fortnight when the team was on the road, the Chennai ground staff redid the wickets - today, while it is not exactly batsman friendly, it is actually better value for shots than the Kotla, and that in turn means that Chennai’s preferred plan of slowing things down with its battery of spinners likely will not work as well as it used to.
Some stats worth your consideration:
Thanks largely to Shane Watson’s leaden legs, CSK ends up playing out more dot balls than any other team in the competition.
CSK, again, has an unimpressive record when it comes to scoring at the death – this, despite the presence of the in-form MS Dhoni.
The third element in a disastrous trifecta: CSK loses the most number of wickets during the powerplay phase, of all teams.
The three charts together reveal CSK’s vulnerability with the bat. It starts slow, loses wickets during the crucial powerplay overs, and ends slow.
This is further aggravated by the fact that CSK’s middle order anchors, Rayudu (213 runs in 12 innings at a strike rate of 89.49) and Kedar Jadhav (162 in 11 innnings at 96.42), who bat behind the top three of Faf, Watson and Raina, are woefully lacking in form; their strike rates are the exact opposite of what is required in this phase.
Interestingly, both teams struggle at the death - and both for the same reason: the relative lack of high impact batsmen of the sort, say, Mumbai Indians and KKR are flush with.
Interestingly, both teams have bowling attacks best suited to capitalize on the opponent’s weakness. Thus, CSK and DC are among the top teams in terms of economy in the death overs - which is exactly where they struggle with the bat. And this is further exacerbated by the fact that both teams are the best at picking wickets in the middle overs.
In game terms, therefore, what this translates to, for both teams but slightly more for CSK, is: Both start on the slow side in the powerplay (the mitigating factor for DC is that Dhawan has reverted to his aggressive self of late); both teams take wickets and therefore slow things down in the middle overs; and both teams have poor records with the bat at the death.
On balance, today’s matchup is very even in terms of team balance for the conditions. DC has a good record playing away from home (five wins in six games); CSK has an incredible home record (They have lost only one game at home all season). Two factors could play a huge role in determining the outcome: Confidence (DC comes in on the back of three wins on the bounce; CSK on the back of three defeats in four). And secondly, Dhoni - who, at the time of writing this, is still an uncertain starter.