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Decoded: How Chennai Super Kings turned things around

Last updated on 17 Oct 2021 | 04:16 AM
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Decoded: How Chennai Super Kings turned things around

CSK made subtle changes without altering their core beliefs to overcome the blip in their legacy

A memorable turnaround was the theme of the IPL final. For Kolkata, it was a rags-to-riches story between the two halves of the same season. For Chennai Super Kings, it was a comeback after a blip in their envious legacy when they failed to qualify for the playoffs for the very first time in 2020.

For Kolkata, a change in mindset ignited the turnaround. Helping it was their spin twin choking the teams and a breath of fresh air in Venkatesh Iyer up top. But, for CSK in the words of MS Dhoni - the heart and soul of CSK - the turnaround began before the 2020 season ended.

“It was tough when we didn't qualify last time. Emotions were quite high. We wanted to forget what has happened till now and make the most of the 3-4 games left towards the end. A lot of our batters made the most of that period which is why I feel we have come back strongly this year.”

And MSD was spot on. Chennai were down and out by the 11th game of their season in 2020. According to the skipper himself, the spark was missing. And then like all good things that come in small packages, they discovered a hidden gem. Bought at a base price of 20L in the IPL auction, Ruturaj Gaikwad made the world take notice with three consecutive half-centuries. Chennai finished the forgettable 2020 season with three wins on the trot.

CSK as a franchise are not used to failure. They mainly have had two broad principles over the years. One, to have mature heads in the team, sometimes even at the cost of having too many old legs. And two, to not tinker with the side too much. “We were not doing anything drastically different from last year and I feel that's what is important whether you win or lose. You keep hearing me or Fleming saying the same thing that we focus on the process and not on the result,” said Dhoni after registering their fourth win this season after beating RCB.

Sticking to their formula, the alterations done were subtle. There were no kneejerk reactions or wholesale squad changes. There was only one major addition in the squad before the auction with the inclusion of Moeen Ali. They even bought a like-for-like replacement in Krishnappa Gowtham who did not get a game but gave us a window into CSK’s thought process. They were sure that there was a category of players missing in their squad and they wanted to ensure that there are no gaps even if there is last-minute unavailability of their first-choice option.

Now, why were they desperate for Moeen Ali. Because they wanted to overhaul one particular aspect of their game.

From spin chickens to spin bashers

CSK had a batting approach that became largely outdated in due course of time. They had the traditional mindset of keeping wickets in hand upfront and going all-in during the death overs.

Since their recall to the IPL in 2018 till the 2020 season, CSK’s run rate of 7.4 in overs 1-15 was the lowest among all sides. This approach was also a factor of them being like their head coach out it as “pretty much a Chennai-based side.”

The biggest contributor to this was their run rate against spin which at 7.2 was also the lowest among all sides in these three seasons.

Now with a strike rate of 171.4 against spin during the 2019 season in India, Moeen Ali was one of the best bashers of spin bowling available in the auction pool. Moreover, his 43 off 18 balls against the Indian spinners in a Test at where else but Chennai days before the auction made him a hot property.

Batting at number three, Moeen made his presence felt immediately. Though his numbers were down in UAE, he was on fire in India with a strike rate of 180.5 against spin.

Return to UAE marked the return of the gem CSK discovered in 2020. Gaikwad picked up the mantle of being the spin basher on the tougher wickets in the middle east. An authentic-stroke playing powerhouse, Gaikwad had a strike rate of 155.2 against spin during the UAE leg, unmatched by any other regular player from any side.

As a result, from being the chickens against spin, CSK with a run rate of 8.2 emerged as the most destructive side against spin in the 2021 season. From an overall lens, their run rate in overs 7-15 thus became the best among all sides in the current season.

A match-up friendly side

Coming to the other reason for CSK going after Moeen and also opting for Gowtham as a backup. 

Playing at Chepauk through the years, CSK were a spin bowling behemoth, with enough options to choke the opposition. However, going into the 2020 season, Harbhajan Singh decided not to travel while Suresh Raina returned home before their first game. Chennai were thus without an off-spin option. As a result, they were one of the sides that did not have a bowler to exploit the match-ups against left-handers.

Handicapped by resources and underperforming wrist spinners, CSK’s strength became their weakness. Their spinners ended the 2020 season with an economy worst than all other sides.

Now, in addition to breaking the monotonicity of right-handers in the top-order like in 2020, the English all-rounder also added value as an off-spinner. CSK felt the need for a hitter cum off-spinner so much that they ensured buying Gowtham as well in case things did not work out with Moeen.

As it turned out, they worked on fine and much more. In another complete turnaround, CSK spinners emerged with the best economy rate in 2021.

More than Moeen, who bowled at an economy of 6.4 but was not used in every game, the real marauder for CSK was Ravindra Jadeja. An ever-improving player, Jadeja had one of his best seasons with both bat and ball. Who can forget the two games he won on his own, smashing Harshal Patel and Prasidh Krishna into oblivion.

In perhaps the form of his life, Jadeja recorded the highest difference between his batting and bowling averages and also the batting run rate and bowling economy in this season.

Sticking to their “processes”, both Dhoni and Fleming rarely shower praises about a certain player. But Fleming did not mind going out of character to celebrate Jadeja’s heroics after the game against RCB.  "We're lucky to have him right now in his prime and he forms the core of the middle-order and allows a lot of options within the team with his skill-set."

Multiple Match-Winners

After losing their first game in the season, Chennai won five on the trot. Memories of 2020 forgotten, Chennai looked as hot as ever. When asked about the change from last year, Dhoni put it on the individuals.  

“Overall if I have to sum it up, the players have taken more responsibility this year. You will be facing adverse things but ultimately it boils down to how each individual rises to the occasion and gives the extra 10 percent for the team.”

And individuals did rise big time. When on one side a few sides who rely on a few exceptional players fall short on a big stage, CSK discovered different match-winners in every game. They won five out of their seven games in India. In each of those five wins, a different player won the man of the match award. When the caravan moved to UAE, CSK won four more games during the league stage. Keeping the trend alive, four different men took the award then as well. And while Ruturaj took the award in the Qualifier, Robin Uthappa played an equally impressive knock. He bettered himself in the final on the night when du Plessis shone the brightest.

And it was not just those who won the award who contributed. Pushed down the order, Ambati Rayudu took to a new role like a duck to water. Adapting to the team’s new “get on with it” approach, he scored runs at a strike rate of 151.2, his best-ever in IPL. Dhoni himself put his hand up in the crucial Qualifier 1 and finished the game against Delhi. And of course “Lord” Shardul Thakur delivering wickets whenever needed. 

But none of the old horses had a bigger impact than Dwayne Bravo. A groin injury cut short his season in 2020. Reinvigorated after leading a lesser-fancied St. Kitts & Nevis Patriots to the title in the CPL earlier this year, Bravo returned with one of his best seasons with the ball for the last few years. 

While his slower balls are among the most potent due to the dip, Bravo mixed things up on the advice of his captain.

“Bravo has turned up fit - that's a very good thing. And he is executing well. I call him my brother. We always have fights over whether he should bowl the slower ball. But I told him that now everyone knows he bowls slower balls, so I told him to bowl six different balls in one over. Whenever he can, he takes up responsibilities.”

Identifying and tweaking the areas that impacted their result the most, two openers who finished two runs apart from each other in the race for the Orange Cap and almost everyone stepping up when needed was the hallmark of CSK’s turnaround. 

“We shuffled a few players, we used them in different ways. Important was to take responsibility. I felt we had match-winners game after game. People who were in the form ensured they were scoring throughout the tournament and others were chipping in,” in his usual matter-of-fact style, before lifting the trophy, Dhoni summed up CSK’s turnaround pretty well. 

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