If a hundred people had to stake their lives on one of the 9 IPL teams, they would all bet on Chennai. If emotions rode hard, a few might go for Mumbai or Kolkata, the support for which teams is just as vociferous and passionate as it is for Chennai. Nevertheless, at a purely rational and statistical level, Chennai would be head and shoulders above every other IPL team. That the BCCI supremo, N Srinivasan of India Cements owns it, makes Super Kings a slightly more controversial team than it should have been. That their owner knows a thing or two about foundations is obvious in the way brand Chennai Super Kings was conjured, designed with immaculate planning and beautified with ornate signings. The team’s biggest mascot is of course, M. S. Dhoni, arguably India’s best captain ever and easily the most successful captain internationally, at a trophy cabinet level.
The Dhoni Factor
M. S. Dhoni, in his first assignment as captain, won the 2007 T20 World Cup. In 2011, he followed it up with the coveted World Cup in the 50 over version. He, like Ricky Ponting, has had a chance to own the ODI World Cup and the Test Mace at the same time. But Ponting never had a T20 World Cup, a Champions League trophy and an IPL trophy to go with them. Dhoni has all of them. Dhoni is a brand of his own, and has been the pivotal point around which the pillars of Chennai Super Kings have been raised, to dizzying heights, one must add.
The local flavour
In the first IPL, Mumbai had Sachin, Delhi had Sehwag, Deccan had Laxman, Kolkata had Ganguly, Punjab had Yuvraj and Bangalore had Dravid. The only two teams without a local icon were Chennai and Rajasthan. The two eventual finalists made a mockery of the local icon concept. Ever since, Chennai has come to consider Dhoni as much their own as they have claimed Sachin to be, albeit in different cricketing uniforms. 5 years hence, the most startling observation would be that Chennai is miles ahead of the others when it comes to brand value, with a local flavour that no other team has. This is largely because of the way the team has been structured. Like Dhoni emphasised in the past, the Super Kings have managed to make space for themselves in the fans’ memory and heart with a largely unchanged core. They either retained or bought back most of the star players even during the second auction preceding the 2011 season, a time during which most teams went for a total switch of looks. Over the years, Chennai have only added players based on necessity, without tinkering much with the existing setup. It is hard to imagine Dhoni, Raina, Ashwin, Vijay, Badrinath, Albie Morkel and Michael Hussey donning any colours apart from the flashy, vibrant yellow of Chennai.
In the inaugural edition, the genius of Shane Warne trumped the composure of Dhoni in the finals, with the Royals winning the trophy on the last ball of the game in a nerve-wracking chase. The next season was the only time when Chennai didn’t make it to the IPL finals. They lost in the semis to a resurgent Royal Challengers side, led by talismanic leg spinner Anil Kumble. Dhoni finally got his hands on the silverware in the third season, with Chennai outperforming the much-vaunted line-up of Mumbai. The next year, it was RCB that fell victim to Chennai’s dominance before Gambhir’s KKR finally got one back from Chennai. 2010 was a prolific year for the Super Kings, beating the Warriors from South Africa to do a T20 version of a double, having won the IPL that year too. 5 years since the inception of IPL, Chennai is still the team to beat. It is not so much its dominance in the leagues, where it has barely managed to scrape through to playoffs quite a few times. It is about how the team dons a new alter-ego, come the knock out stages.
The Probable Super Stars
Dhoni is definitely the lynchpin of the Chennai side, manning the resources and giving the batting order the boost or buffer that the situation demands. Vijay at the top, given the form he is in, will be the rook that Chennai will use to trample the opponents early on. Ashwin, with a bowling average of 22.95, an economy of 6.22 and 49 wickets in IPL, is their trump card. That Vijay with 294 runs and Ashwin with 13 wickets, were the golden bat and golden wicket winners in the 2010 Champions League addition, show who the big-stage players of Chennai are. Vijay also has two of the most blistering IPL centuries witnessed so far. Chennai’s solidity this year looks impenetrable with Raina, Faf du Plessis, Hussey, Badrinath and Dwayne Bravo. Ashwin and Jadeja add depth to their batting.
Chennai’s X-factor is definitely their all-rounders. Albie Morkel, Dwayne Bravo, Jadeja and Ashwin are all competent batsmen. Bravo in particular is a game changer on his day, not to mention the tint of the exotic that he brings to the game with his trademark Calypso celebrations. Dirk Nannes and Chris Morris give Chennai’s pace attack an edge that seemed to be missing in previous seasons. Nannes is just one wicket short of Alfonso’s wicket tally amongst highest T20 wicket takers.
The Chidambaram is at par with Wankhede or Eden Gardens when it comes to decibel levels and home support. Chennai are one of the most dominant home teams in IPL, their fortress not breached often. The fact that some strong IPL teams will not be able to play their first choice Sri Lankan players at Chennai will only play to the Super Kings’ advantage. Delhi, Pune and Deccan will sorely miss their captains, Mahela, Angelo and Sangakkara respectively. Dilshan and Malinga’s absence will be big blows for RCB and Mumbai respectively. Each of these players are match-winners, and for once, politics has marred healthy sporting competition. The Chidambaram would be all the more impregnable this season.
Stats become irrelevant in the chaos and unpredictability of T20. Nevertheless, they are a useful reminder of how consistent certain teams like Super Kings could be. It is not surprising that Chennai boast of the highest run aggregate in the tournament. They also boast of the highest win percentage in chases and the highest number of wins batting first.
On Judgment Day
It’s an irresistible temptation to romance cricket. There are the fallen heroes and the rising phoenixes, the champions who were once dark horses and the gladiators who were once vilified. However, to the cricket fan, Chennai is the anti-thesis to Mumbai. Mumbai Indians, the team, has poetry about it, largely owing to Sachin’s presence and the extremes that they have managed to pamper. Chennai on the other hand, stands true to a Tamil movie. There are ups and downs, lots of entertainment, fireworks and heartbreaks. In the end though, the mission is almost always accomplished, with much aplomb and great finesse. The Super Kings bring immaculateness to the way they play IPL, an acupuncture-like precision to the way they approach games, peaking at the right point. They don’t have the best IPL batsmen or bowlers playing for them, which throws adequate light to the way the team delivers. That is undoubtedly the hallmark of champions, which the Super Kings are without a speck of doubt. A championship team is not one with the known celebrities and star players, but the one that throws up unexpected stars in every difficult situation it faces. That explains why Super Kings are champions so often.