Around this time last year, epitaphs were being written. Father Time, it was believed, had caught up with Dad’s Army, the most consistent team in Indian Premier League history was running on empty.
A year is a lifetime in professional sport. The same outfit, give or take a name or two, which was the first to be eliminated from IPL 2020, is the first team to have guaranteed itself a place in the playoffs this season, three-fourths of the way into the league phase. Chennai Super Kings are back, and how!
Mahendra Singh Dhoni’s CSK – for that’s what it is, one without the other is unimaginable – may not be the most successful team in the competition; that honour goes to Mumbai Indians, with an unprecedented five titles. CSK have worn the crown thrice, including a fairytale run in 2018, on their return from a two-year suspension. Until 2020, they had made the semifinal/playoffs of every single IPL in which they had competed (10 editions), reaching the final a whopping eight times.
Then, a disaster struck in the UAE last year. Suresh Raina, their secondary talisman, returned home before the start of the competition, becoming the second high-ticket withdrawal after Harbhajan Singh. CSK got off to a terrible start and slumped from bad to worse as the tournament progressed. There were pockets of brilliance from the seasoned Faf du Plessis and the exciting Sam Curran, but their superstars of campaigns past went cold, the bazookas firing blanks.
As they stumbled from one disaster to another, hushed whispers reached a crescendo – of disappointment, of thinly-concealed barbs and ridicule. Ageing bodies and minds, and a steadfast stubbornness to remain mired in the archaic, were held against them. The pundits were categorical in their assertion that unless CSK shook themselves out of their self-imposed torpor, the future was bleak, grim, foreboding.
It’s unlikely that the CSK ownership, their inspirational captain or long-standing head coach Stephen Fleming would have been oblivious to the flowery obits that accompanied their exit from IPL 2020. Even so, they did what they have done so successfully all these years – stick to their game plans, back their instincts, bombard the air of negativity within the group and reinject the spirit and spunk that had seen them pull off the impossible with regularity in the past.
In just about the only indication that they needed a gentle reshuffle in personnel, CSK blooded Ruturaj Gaikwad towards the closing stages last year, long after their playoff chances had gone up in smoke. The right-handed opener might have played earlier had he not contracted coronavirus and didn’t make an auspicious start to his IPL career, but signed off in a blaze of glory, finishing the season with half-centuries in his last three innings.
The then 21-year-old from Maharashtra was the catalyst of a late surge that netted CSK victories in their three final games and helped them avoid the wooden spoon, on net rate, at the expense of Rajasthan Royals. Gaikwad was Player of the Match in the hat-trick of wins, striking up a wonderful alliance at the top of the tree with du Plessis. It was an indication of what was to follow.
In the closed season, CSK did make changes, some of them forced, some tactical. Shane Watson’s retirement from all cricket firmed up the du Plessis-Gaikwad alliance, and they let Kedar Jadhav go. When they offloaded Harbhajan Singh, CSK dished out Rs 9.25 crore for K Gowtham in the mini-auction in February, making the Karnataka offie the most expensive uncapped Indian player. Interestingly, Gowtham is yet to debut for his new franchise.
Beyond this, though, CSK retained faith in pretty much the same personnel that did duty last year in a show of faith and confidence that has been their singular calling card. Dhoni and Fleming are a crack combo because they know what makes their players tick. Any side can have a poor season; to start doubting the credentials of the players and enforce knee-jerk, sweeping alterations are simply not in the DNA of this captain-coach duo.
Even at the worst of times, CSK has been loath to make wholesale changes. This time, they have had neither the reason nor the compulsion to do so, which explains why as many as eight players have played all 11 games and a ninth, Moeen Ali, has missed just one. Constancy in team selection and the willingness to give the players a long rope is one of the open secrets to the Chennai franchise’s sustained excellence in a format where consistency is the most obvious casualty. Not for the first time, the players have responded in splendid fashion, with Gaikwad and du Plessis setting the tone with the bat, Ravindra Jadeja showcasing all-round excellence and Dwayne Bravo returning to his crafty, parsimonious, prolific best.
The other usual suspects – Ambati Rayudu, Deepak Chahar, Shardul Thakur and Moeen – have more than pulled their weight. If anything, the most celebrated non-performer is Raina, who has managed an anaemic 157 runs in 10 innings, striking at a modest 127.64. But such has been the contributions around him that CSK is willing to ‘carry’ him through the poor run, hopeful that he will rediscover his best touch at the business end.
So much has been written about Dhoni’s man-management skills and his unflappability under extreme pressure that it doesn’t warrant repetition. Suffice to say that the Dhoni magic is definitely not a thing of the past. He might not be as demonic in front of the stumps, but time has done little to slow him down behind it or blunt his mental faculties. The Dhoni hand in CSK’s Phoenix-like rise from the ashes is no figment of the imagination, as testified by the BCCI roping him in as a mentor for the T20 World Cup. If CSK finds themselves brilliantly placed to launch a salvo at a fourth title, that’s largely because of their captain’s guiding hand – light, firm or steely, depending on, but always benevolent.