On 22nd September 2020, the Chennai Super Kings (CSK) were pummeled into submission by the Rajasthan Royals at Sharjah. Throughout that encounter, CSK lacked the firepower and the carefree attitude that has defined T20 cricket recently. In blunter terms, CSK, despite the plethora of experienced stars at their disposal, just looked archaic and stubborn.
A few games later, against the Sunrisers Hyderabad, CSK’s lack of attacking intent was laid bare for everyone to witness all over again. This time, though, more damningly, MS Dhoni stood and watched as he, uncharacteristically, failed to take his side across the line.
Immediately, plenty pinpointed Dhoni’s waning abilities as the sole cause of CSK’s decline. On finer introspection, though, it was perhaps their approach and their trusted modus operandi that was being called into question.
During IPL 2020, both MS Dhoni and Stephen Fleming tried to reiterate that they intended to shake things up. However, that didn’t materialize as CSK finished 7th on the IPL points table. In 2021, though, at the auction table and on the pitch, there have been fleeting glimpses that CSK might just have turned a corner.
So far, CSK have played three games and their batsmen have looked in fine fettle throughout. While the runs have dried up for Ruturaj Gaikwad, the rest have been showcasing a lot of attacking adventure. The aforementioned trait surfaced quite extraordinarily against the Royals at the Wankhede Stadium.
To place things into perspective, RR put CSK into bat on a surface that looked a tad tacky, at least at the outset. Subsequently, several expected the Yellow Army to bide their time and then time their assault, especially after the damage CSK had inflicted against the Punjab Kings on a similar pitch.
Yet CSK adopted a completely different mindset and put the RR bowlers under the cosh instantly. Even though Ruturaj Gaikwad scratched around for 13 balls (only making 10 runs), Faf du Plessis made his intentions clear.
First, he advanced against Chetan Sakariya and Jaydev Unadkat, bagging a maximum (2nd over) and a boundary (3rd over) respectively. Thereafter, he brought out the ramp shot in the 5th over when confronting Unadkat – something that ruffled the Indian pacer.
He then charged at Unadkat again and dispatched him for a maximum, which was followed by an excellent lofted straight drive. Thus, in a matter of a couple of overs, Faf du Plessis had firmly wrestled the initiative in CSK’s favour. That it came when Ruturaj Gaikwad could hardly buy a run and CSK were under strife, only highlighted the change in tack.
CSK were aggressive with the bat against Rajasthan Royals
Over the course of their batting innings, CSK barely flinched, apart from a brief period where MS Dhoni was acclimatizing himself to his surroundings. During that phase between Ambati Rayudu’s dismissal and Dhoni’s departure, CSK only accumulated 24 runs off 23 deliveries (excluding the ball on which the latter was sent packing).
Yet, that perhaps represented the aberration, rather than the norm – something that didn’t seem too likely when CSK incessantly huffed and puffed on their UAE expedition.
Interestingly, CSK breached the 180-run barrier against the Royals, without any of their batsmen making a half-century. And that, above anything else, could be the ideal marker illustrating a tweak in their tactics.
To place things into context, CSK have remained (arguably) the only IPL outfit that has prioritized the role of an anchor. Or, in blunter terms, they are responsible for keeping that particular job description in vogue. Over the years, Ambati Rayudu, Faf du Plessis, Michael Hussey, Suresh Raina, S Badrinath and of course, MS Dhoni, have followed it to the tee.
More recently though, with T20 cricket becoming more frenzied than ever, knocks of that ilk began weighing the team down, with CSK’s struggles in the UAE a prime example.
Thus for them to completely throw their usual modus operandi out of the window and prefer something entirely different, with nearly the same personnel, speaks volumes of the clarity running through their camp in 2021.
The aforementioned was elaborated during MS Dhoni’s post-match comments when he openly admitted that his lacklustre start could have been disastrous. And lest one forgets, this was MS Dhoni – the archetypal poker player and the ultimate backer of his method, saying that he probably didn’t adhere to CSK’s new approach.
Apart from the above, there was also another factor in play at the Wankhede Stadium on Monday. To spell things out plainly, the track started turning and CSK’s bowling attack, which had looked toothless during their opening encounter, suddenly grew in potency.
And, if that is a sign of things to come, CSK might just find themselves in the higher trenches a touch longer.
Though the initial temptation might be to label the change of ball, which happened after Jos Buttler’s six on the 5th ball of the 13th over, as the defining moment, there was enough evidence to suggest that spin could play a pivotal part, especially as the pitches get tired.
When that happened against the Royals, CSK quickly flicked a switch and retracted into their element. They defended the square boundaries expertly, both off the fast bowlers and the spinners, while also optimizing the skewed boundary dimensions.
Furthermore, they attacked the stumps with their spinners – an aspect that was emphasized by Ravindra Jadeja castling Buttler, before trapping Shivam Dube LBW. Moeen Ali, too, used the assistance on offer as he crushed RR’s hopes, eventually accounting for David Miller (LBW), Chris Morris and Riyan Parag (both caught on the longer mid-wicket fence).
To add to it, they utilized Dwayne Bravo as a death-overs specialist. Although the West Indian often performed that role in 2020 as well, he couldn’t really make as much of an impact. This time though, he is trusting his stock delivery a lot more – something that makes his variations a lot more useful.
Thus, as things stand, it seems that CSK, despite all the pre-tournament murmurs, have somehow managed to accustom themselves to a new style, or in MS Dhoni’s words, another “process”.
Encouragingly, they’ve somehow also married their new method with their age-old model, meaning that they might find themselves in contention during the latter stages of IPL 2021 too.
Though there is still a long way to go before CSK solidify their credentials as genuine title contenders, one can’t help but feel that this outfit is much better equipped to its 2020 version.
In fact, it seems a tad poetic that CSK’s best rendition of their new method came against the Rajasthan Royals – the very side that exposed catastrophic chinks in CSK’s batting armour.
Maybe, CSK weren’t that archaic and stubborn, after all!