From being dubbed as the 'Dad's Army' to 'Team of Oldies', Chennai Super Kings had a point to prove when they made their return in the 2018 Indian Premier League after a two-year ban. Not many expected the yellow brigade to do well, especially after General MS Dhoni and head coach Stephen Fleming backed a group of 30-somethings at the player auction. Despite many players aging over 30, Chennai schooled every opponent on their way to the final where they defeated Sunrisers Hyderabad to lift the title for the third time.
It was on this day in 2018, Chennai commenced their IPL 2018 campaign against Mumbai Indians at the Wankhede Stadium. First the pressure of making a comeback, then playing the defending champions in the tournament opener, Chennai needed all the 'experience' to defy the odds and make a proper statement. Mumbai had Dhoni and Co. on the mat after the end of 17 overs as they still needed 47 off 18 deliveries. Chennai looked down and out and that's when Dwayne Bravo lit up the Wankhede with the Caribbean firepower and led his team to a miraculous one-wicket victory.
The statement was made, the opposition were forced to sit up and take notice, and the trolls soon started evanescing. Here, we look at Chennai's successful campaign, how they defied critics and what led to them becoming the three-time champions.
Auction - Here to win, future can wait
After retaining Dhoni, Suresh Raina and Ravindra Jadeja ahead of the auction, Chennai got the core group of players back. They played it smart in the auction and managed to buy 22 players for INR 40.5 crore. They got the likes of Imran Tahir, Kedar Jadhav, Faf du Plessis, Bravo, Ambati Rayudu, Shane Watson and Harbhajan Singh who all were way above 30.
The team management had already announced before the auction that they will pick a squad filled with match-winners and experienced campaigners. They also spoke about how experienced players are mentally strong and can handle any amount of pressure, something they did throughout the competition. They did get a few young talents like Sam Billings, Deepak Chahar and Mitchell Santner. Chennai had the perfect mix of experience and youth and were set to take IPL 2018 by storm.
Injuries, and thrown out of their home
With so many senior players in the squad, fitness was always going to be a concern. Watson didn't bowl much in the tournament, while Chennai lost Jadhav after the first match. The middle-order batsman, who put the finishing touches against Mumbai after Bravo's heroics, pulled a hamstring during that match and was ruled out of the event. The team management, the physios and the medical staff had to work hard on the players but eventually they somehow managed to keep everyone going till the end of the tournament.
The home crowd finally got to watch their favourite players live at the Chepauk and their energy and Billings' brisk innings against Kolkata Knight Riders made it a special experience for the team and their fans. However, the BCCI and the IPL governing council were forced to shift their remaining six matches from Chennai to Pune because of the Cauvery water sharing dispute. Despite winning both their opening encounters, Chennai had their fair share of worries both inside and outside the stadium. Keeping the Chepauk surface in mind, they had built a spin-heavy side but they still found a way to adapt and made Pune their new fortress.
Art of winning close encounters
Allrounder Jadeja had said that Chennai don't panic no matter what the situation is and they proved it by constantly winning matches that they should have had no business winning. It all started against Mumbai where they chased down 47 runs in the final three overs. They then got the required 41 runs from the last three overs against Kolkata in Chennai before Dhoni and Rayudu helped Chennai pull off yet another heist against Royal Challengers Bangalore. Needing 44 off 18, Dhoni once again did what he does best and got his team over the line.
However, the best was yet to come. Every match Chennai had one guy stepping up and doing the job for the team. Everytime it looked like Chennai were down and out, one of Dhoni, Rayudu, Billings, Bravo, Watson or Raina would come up with a standout innings and help the franchise end on the right side of the result. Not to forget, even the likes of Chahar, Shardul Thakur and Harbhajan played their part with the bat. One player who struggled throughout the group stage in the limited opportunities that he got was du Plessis. The former South African captain had scored 85 runs in four group-stage matches but when the time came, du Plessis rose to the occasion.
Chasing 140 in the first qualifier against Hyderabad, Chennai needed 43 from the last three overs. Du Plessis was the only recognised batsman left and the right-handed opener got the job done in just 13 deliveries, leading Chennai to the final. Apart from these four games, there were also matches which Chennai won by four and 13 runs. No other team scored more runs than Chennai (852) in the final five overs and that tells you how strategically ruthless they were in the death overs. No matter who was in the middle, they knew which bowler or batsman to target and won quite a few games via last-round knockouts. Not once Chennai lost two matches in a row. The opponents were aware of the fact that no match is over against Chennai until and unless it's mathematically impossible and Dhoni's men made the most of this fear.
You simply can't beat experience
Many eyebrows were raised when Chennai acquired the services of Watson and Rayudu, two batsmen way out of their prime. However, these two didn't disappoint and had their best season. While Rayudu ended up with 602 runs, Watson amassed 555. Out of 15 matches they played together in the 2018 edition, only twice both of them got out below 30. Which means at least one of them was contributing in almost every match. Watson smashed two centuries and as many fifties in the season, including that 117* against Hyderabad in the final. Meanwhile, Rayudu too scored a century and was one of the four players who crossed the 600-run mark. No other team had more batsmen than Chennai (4) with over 400 runs.
IPL's all-time second-highest run-getter, Raina didn't set the tournament on fire but still ended up getting 445 runs at a strike rate of 132.44. The left-hander acted like a glue between Watson-Rayudu and Dhoni. Apart from these four, Chennai had batsmen chipping in every possible way. There were games which they would have lost if not for that one batsman stepping up and single-handedly winning the game for his side. Chennai had the highest average runs/wicket and balls/wicket amongst eight teams, and the second-best run-rate after Delhi Capitals.
While their batsmen kept winning them matches, Chennai bowlers were slightly mediocre. The experienced campaigners like Bravo, Harbhajan and Tahir weren't at their best but somehow managed to lend a decent amount of support to their young comrades.
Young comrades played their part
Chennai's batting department had experience written all over it but the bowling department was headed by the likes of Lungi Ngidi, Chahar and Thakur. Ngidi, in particular, was introduced in the second half of the tournament and the South African paceman solved most of Chennai's bowling problems. Ngidi took wickets at the start and was also brilliant in the death overs, operating at an economy of just 6.8. Meanwhile, Chahar (10) took the most number of wickets in the first six overs after Umesh Yadav (14). Jadeja, Bravo and Thakur were also amongst the wickets but it was largely Ngidi and Chahar who created a large impact.
Captain leading from the front
There were doubts over Dhoni's stature ahead of the tournament but the wicketkeeper-batsman had his second-best IPL in terms of runs, and his best in terms of average (he bettered it in 2019), proving all his critics wrong. He was finishing matches for his team and scored the most number of runs in the last five overs, that too at a strike-rate of just over 200. He struggled to get going in the first two matches but it all turned around in the third when Dhoni slammed 79 off 44 against King XI Punjab. He fell four runs short but that knock gave Dhoni the momentum and the helicopter was up and flying.
He didn't miss out against Bangalore and helped Chennai chase down a massive target of 206. He kept on playing those match-winning and impactful cameos and scored almost 35 percent of the total runs (297/852) in the death overs.
He contributed in almost every game and was simply phenomenal as captain. Chennai without Dhoni's leadership is like Conor McGregor without his left hand. Dhoni made the most of the resources he had and added yet another feather to his already overcrowded cap.