MS Dhoni - A Chennai Super King in denial
“This was a good team effort, but we never reached 100% efficiency level. Losing Brendon McCullum just before the knockouts was a big blow. These are all part and parcel of the game, you can't really help it,” said the Chennai Super Kings (CSK) captain MS Dhoni following yet another defeat in the knockout stages of the Indian Premier League (IPL).
It has now been four years since the Chennai-based franchise last won an IPL trophy. Out of the 8 trophies that they competed for in that period, all that they have managed to win is one – the Champions League T20 (CLT20) tournament held last year. For a team that prides itself on its big match temperament, that, sure, is a big concern.
So much so that, after being brought to their knees by Mumbai Indians in the final, Dhoni concluded his speech in the post-match presentation ceremony saying, “We need to go back to the drawing board and see how we can win the IPL.” Have the Super Kings forgotten how to win an IPL trophy?
It’s beyond McCullum and out-of-form top order
What has gone wrong? Can losing McCullum have such a big impact? Or was it just that they were unlucky to have a couple of their star players in bad form throughout the tournament? Even if you buy all those, what about the previous three seasons? They had all that they missed this season, yet they lost. It is important to look through the right mirror to find what their problem actually is.
Being deprived of McCullum's services for the playoffs was a big blow indeed. But that wasn’t the reason they lost the match. Their misfiring top order had nothing to do with it either.
They lost because they conceded 202. They lost because they played Faf du Plessis, their best batsman on form, at No.7 in the final; because they have been continuously playing him in the middle order, which has had a severe impact in his contributions to the team; because they don’t see they need a bowling attack for them to win matches when the wickets don't assist spin bowling; because Ravichandran Ashwin, Ravindra Jadeja and Pawan Negi can’t do the job on flat wickets, nor is it fair to expect them to; because they play their spin trio match in, match out not for their bowling ability, but for the “extra 20 runs” that every single one of them can offer and; because their think-tank prefers all-rounders ahead of specialists.
Because, MS, you are not flexible enough. How many Chennai Super Kings fans know Andrew Tye and Kyle Abbott? They are part of your squad. How good are they? Abbott is one of the best exponents around with the new ball. He could have been your Ben Hilfenhaus of this IPL. Tye is a dark horse but was worth a try especially when you know your bowlers are leaking plenty of runs. He has made a name for himself in the Big Bash League (BBL) with his ability to bowl at demanding stages of the game.
The pattern of winning teams
Have a look at the bowling attacks of the IPL winning teams in the past 4 years:
2015 (Mumbai Indians): Lasith Malinga, Mitchell McClenaghan, Harbhajan Singh, Jagadeesha Suchith and Vinay Kumar
2014 (Kolkata Knight Riders): Morne Morkel, Sunil Narine, Shakib Al Hasan, Umesh Yadav and Piyush Chawla
2013 (Mumbai Indians): Lasith Malinga, Mitchell Johnson, Harbhajan Singh, Pragyan Ojha, Rishi Dhawan and Kieron Pollard
2012 (Kolkata Knight Riders): Brett Lee, Sunil Narine, Shakib Al Hasan, Jacques Kallis, Iqbal Abdulla, Rajat Bhatia
Do you see the pattern? They have all had well-rounded bowling units, despite it coming at the cost of two of their overseas slots. The Super Kings, on the other hand, have gone overboard with their love for all-rounders and “that extra batsman”. While it is true that every team has its way of playing, what good is your way when your are time and again ending up as the second-best as a result of your bowling unit?
It's not that they were caught off guard. The alarm bells have been loud and clear for quite a few seasons now. The Super Kings looked hopeless almost every time they played on a good batting deck this season – Rajasthan Royals chased down 157 with a loss of just two wickets, Sunrisers Hyderabad piled up a massive 192/7 in 20 overs without Moises Henriques contributing anything of note and Mumbai Indians scored 183 at Wankhede in their first encounter this season, before following it up with scores of 187 and 202 in the knockouts.
Knock.. knock.. Heard of a bowling attack?
You might throw up Ashish Nehra's name here, claiming him to be your new ball specialist this season. Nehra did have a wonderful season, but with due respect to his exploits, would you bet on him getting a David Warner or a Lendl Simmons? Given below is a list of his performances against the top 5 teams of this IPL:
|Ashish Nehra vs Top 5 teams||First match||Second match||Third and Fourth match|
|Mumbai Indians||4-0-32-3*||3-0-45-0||4-0-28-1 & 4-0-41-0|
|Kolkata Knight Riders||4-0-38-1||4-0-36-0|
|Royal Challengers Bangalore||4-0-10-4||4-0-19-3||4-0-28-3|
*Mumbai were a woeful team in the first half of the tournament, so their first match won't be considered.
Leave the Royal Challengers Bangalore part apart, who were hell-bent on gifting as many wickets as he earned against them, can you point out a single impact performance from the list? Where are the wickets that your new ball bowler should take? He hasn't taken more than a single wicket in nine of the remaining ten matches and has conceded 7.5 or more runs per over in eight of them.
Let's come to Dwayne Bravo now.
|Bravo vs Top 5 teams||On slow, low wickets||On flat decks|
|Kolkata Knight Riders||5-0-49-3||-|
|Royal Challengers Bangalore||6.4-0-38-3||3-0-25-1|
*Kolkata (during league stages), Ranchi and Chepauk are considered as slow, low decks.
If you have a look at the above table, you would understand that Bravo isn’t the same force on flat decks. The Caribbean all-rounder concedes at 8.77 runs per over on good batting decks as compared to just 7.72 runs per over on supportive decks. If your go-to man concedes at that rate, you have an issue, a big one at that.
He also picks up a wicket every couple of overs on slow, low decks (11 in 22 overs) as compared to one every 3 overs on decks that support batsmen (7 in 21.2 overs). That's a negative there as well.
This isn't the spinners’ world
Ravichandran Ashwin’s case is even worse. The decline in his performances since 2011 is clearly evident from the stats below:
|Ashwin in 2015||Innings||Overs||Wickets||Runs||Economy|
This last table pretty much explains it all. At home, Ashwin and Co. spin a web around oppositions. But away from home, Dhoni has not even been able to give Ashwin his full quota of overs. Considering the off-spinner's performances at home this IPL and his impressive show at the 2015 World Cup, you would be able to say that he is in some serious form. So, why was he not able to replicate that in the away matches in IPL this season?
Go back to India’s 2015 World Cup campaign. What was the team’s biggest plus point? The pacers. Their ability to consistently strike in the powerplay overs. It is relatively easy for a spinner to then come in and run the show. On a slow, low deck, it doesn’t matter anyway. But here when the Super Kings play away from home, their new ball bowlers fail to deliver – Mohit Sharma had a forgettable campaign and you saw Nehra’s numbers above.
I wouldn’t really blame Ashwin here. It is unfair to expect him to do well if you give the ball to him with the top 3 well-settled almost always. Look at Harbhajan Singh's performances on either side of the Mitchell Johnson-season.
|In 2013 (With Johnson)||19||24||19.00||6.51|
There are numerous such examples. The impact that Mitchell Starc was able to have on the entire RCB bowling unit is a case in point as well. A batsman's mindset would be different when he knows he can't score off Starc’s four overs, so he will have to take those extra risks in the middle overs which can play into the hands of the opposition. An above average bowler, therefore, becomes good on most occasions. The Dindas of the world remain Dindas though.
Also, a batsman seeing a flighted delivery when on 60/1 in 7 overs isn't the same as the one who sees it on 48/2. As a bowler, you can bowl a couple of loose deliveries and can get away when the pressure is on the opposition.
The inexplicable Ishwar Pandey axe
Doesn't it make sense to improve your new ball bowling unit on good batting decks then? Didn't Dhoni have options? He had, and I am not even getting into the overseas players and the ones that were missed in the auction.
There is a certain bloke who goes around by the name of Ishwar Pandey – he had the second-best bowling average and the second-best economy rate for the Super Kings this season. What happened to him? He was dropped mysteriously towards the latter end of the season, and three bowlers – Ravindra Jadeja, Pawan Negi and Mohit Sharma – who had a horror tournament, by any standards, continued to play.
If you show me those figures and tell me that I should drop one of them, I would drop anyone but Pandey. But the Super Kings think different.
Of the 3, you can understand Negi getting a slot given his ability to provide some quick runs down the order, but how did Pandey warrant a drop ahead of Jadeja and Sharma? And Dhoni says this: the players never reached their 100% efficiency. How will they reach when you continue to stick with underperfomers or underutilise players?
And speaking of underusing players, here comes the Du Plessis mess. Playing the South African T20 captain at No.4 would qualify as the biggest blunder of this season if you don't take into account the customary millions that are spent on the likes of Yuvraj Singh and Dinesh Karthik at the auction every year.