IPL 2018: Chennai Super Kings find a way out, yet again
Apart from being the first Indian Premier League after the completion of the opening decade, the eleventh edition of the competition was exciting for one other reason- it marked the return of two sides. Both popular for different reasons.
The Chennai Super Kings, from the 1st year, have been a fan's favourite largely because of the presence of the talisman Mahendra Singh Dhoni. It didn't matter where you played, whom you played when he walked out to bat, only one name roared across venues and still does.
On the other end of the spectrum, were the Rajasthan Royals. Vastly different from their yellow counterparts, they were always the 'moneyball' franchise and added a different flavour to the competition.
There was no doubting which franchise among the two generated the greater interest before the league began.
But before the on-field action begins, the strength of the teams is determined by what happens on the auction table. It was here, it seemed like, the plot went awry for the two-time champions.
Even as all the other teams looked to form their units on performance and T20 capabilities of players, to everyone watching, it seemed very clear that CSK were riding high on emotion.
They opted to use their RTM card first on Faf du Plessis and then on Dwayne Bravo, which meant they had gotten five players from their previous seasons who had formed the core.
What they did around them baffled everybody. They went for Shane Watson, retired from international cricket and a freelance T20 player, Harbhajan Singh, nowhere near India selection, Imran Tahir, fine bowler but lost some of his dependability in recent times, Murali Vijay, fine player but one whose limited-overs stocks had reduced.
Many felt their best buys came at the end when they got Mark Wood and Lungi Ngidi as his backup. It was a squad with several ageing players and that left a question mark on the fielding. Remember the infamous 'rotation' policy Dhoni had employed in the CB series of 2012 for the same reason?
But, when they beat Mumbai Indians in the first match at the Wankhede Stadium, the world seemed fine again. Then they defeated KKR and you thought, "Hang On! Are we onto something here?"
But their key lesson came in a loss. Against the Kings XI Punjab, when they came mighty close thanks to as good an innings as Dhoni had ever played in the IPL.
The learnings from that match was: The batting had to click match-after-match because on a good pitch, their bowling was just not good enough.
In that game, Bravo went for 37 runs in his four overs, Harbhajan went for 41 runs in his quota, Tahir 34 runs in his four overs.
Ever since that game, the bowling unit has never been the same again, but, boy, has the batting stood up to counter it or what.
Ambati Rayudu, for all the success he had with the Mumbai Indians, has found his pot of gold at the end of the rainbow with the yellow brigade. In the 12 matches that he has played so far, he has made 535 runs at a strike-rate of 152.
Many thought Watson was done and dusted as a cricketer, but he has risen up and delivered with 424 runs.
And then there is Dhoni. The leader has just woken up and said, "Chalo yaar! Ek aur baar" 413 runs in 12 matches. Even Virat Kohli, who saw his former skipper go berserk at his home ground in Bengaluru, could not help but praise the manner in which he has timed the ball and cleared the rope with ease.
But as it was mentioned in one of the earlier paragraphs, the batting exploits have only counter-punched a very insipid bowling unit.
The stats tell you a story. No bowler from the franchise finds himself in the Top 15 list of the higher wicket-takers. Shardul Thakur is the first bowler you see at the 17th position on the table with 11 wickets in nine matches.
Bravo has nine in 12 matches. His earlier self might have had double the number having played the same number of matches.
What has come to the rescue is that in Dhoni, they have a captain who has been here before. With India. All those years of watching the batting rack up the runs only for the bowlers to not do their bit has come back to haunt him.
The master that he is of such a scenario, he has found a way to somehow get the job done. Rotating the bowlers, using different combinations, trying to find a way by which he could pull off games.
Sometimes, he's barely used Jadeja and on other days, he has used him and Harbhajan together and it has paid off like it happened against the Royal Challengers in Pune.
Thakur might have taken the wickets, but those scalps have come at a cost. Deepak Chahar has had fitness issues to tackle.
But his biggest problem has been the form of Bravo. In the past, heading into the IPL, he knew he could bank on Bravo at the death, to cut the runs, to take the wickets, to keep the opposition at check. That has not happened this year and you could see the impact.
His economy rate stands at 9.89 for this year. Between 2011 and 2013, it never crossed 8.
And yet, despite all the flaws in their bowling, CSK have made it to the Playoffs. As they say with champion teams, they just know how to do it. They just know how to join the bits, form the vehicle and then let it rip.
But the question to ask: On the big day, can this unit deliver as one? Can both the batting and the bowling come together? We haven't seen that happen often in this competition so far, but boy, what fun it would be if it does.
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