Hardik Pandya and MS Dhoni, IPL 2023
Captains Hardik Pandya (GT) and MS Dhoni (CSK) pose with the IPL 2023 trophy. Photo: BCCI/IPL

IPL 2023 final: CSK, GT excited, nervous, anticipant and keyed up for big game

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Respect. That was the overwhelming theme on Saturday, 24 hours before Gujarat Titans’ (GT) showdown with Chennai Super Kings (CSK) to be crowned champions of IPL 2023.

Vikram Solanki, Gujarat’s director of cricket, and Stephen Fleming, Chennai’s long-serving coach, have been there and done that, and they are in a better position than most people to know what it takes to win a title, any title. Solanki’s respect for Chennai stems from the fact that the latter have made it to the IPL finals 10 times in their 14 years, winning the title four times. Fleming’s admiration for his opponents on Sunday (May 28) at the Narendra Modi Stadium in Ahmedabad owes itself to Gujarat wearing the crown in their maiden appearance last year and backing it up by making the final immediately thereafter.

Also read: IPL 2023 | Hardik Pandya’s calmness is reminiscent of MS Dhoni: Gavaskar

Consistent Gujarat

Only two sides have successfully defended their titles previously – Chennai themselves in 2011 and Mumbai Indians in 2020. More than even in a World Cup, so much has to go right and so little wrong for a team to even make the finals, let alone go all the way, in the IPL. It’s credit to Chennai and Gujarat that they have shown such remarkable consistency that no one can grudge them their successes, sustained in the former’s case and remarkable in their nascent existence when it comes to the latter.

The Narendra Modi Stadium is Gujarat’s home ground and even though the final is supposed to be at a ‘neutral’ venue, things have worked out quite nicely for Hardik Pandya’s team. It was here that they triumphed against Rajasthan Royals in the title clash 12 months ago, and with the core group unaltered, they will be able to use that experience as a springboard on the morrow and beyond. Chennai have triumphed across venues, and so when Fleming spoke of a certain ‘nervousness’ ahead of such an important occasion, you could see that it was a good nervousness that he openly welcomed.

Also read: Shubman Gill’s prolific 2023: Full list of Gill’s 8 centuries this year

As experienced and battle-hardened as teams might be, it is impossible to view a big final as just another match. The mind starts to play funny tricks and often, it can be extremely demanding to stay in the present. That’s where the value of experience kicks in. That’s where the calmness of the leadership group becomes crucial. And that’s where both teams are richly endowed.

Fleming-Dhoni combo

Fleming and Mahendra Singh Dhoni have exploded all myths surrounding the ideal tenure for a coach-captain duo. Familiarity is often supposed to breed contempt, but it has been the exact opposite in this instance. After season one of the IPL in 2008, Fleming switched from a playing to a coaching capacity and has been inseparable from Dhoni – he went as coach to Rising Pune Supergiants (RPS) in the two years when Chennai were suspended from the IPL. Dhoni might be the obvious puller of strings, but the former New Zealand captain is no mute bystander; quietly and without fuss, the acknowledged astute student of the game weighs in with his considerable inputs, allowing Dhoni to use him as a sounding board but confident in the respect – that word again – Dhoni has for him to state his own views with clarity and without fear or bias.

Also read: IPL 2023: Gill’s sensational ton puts GT in final; MI out

Fleming spoke of three issues that have historically been Chennai’s driving forces in the IPL, using them to explain why after one poor campaign, the team invariably mounts a strong challenge the following year. In 2020, for instance, Dhoni’s men finished seventh out of eight teams, only to win their fourth title in 2021. Last year, Chennai again narrowly avoided the wooden spoon, finishing ninth, and here they are now, one win away from equalling Mumbai’s record of five crowns.

“Continuity, belief in the players and calmness under pressure,” Fleming said, outlining the reasons behind Chennai’s bouncebackability. Chennai are loath to making changes unless there is a pressing need; they try and retain the core group in the conviction that it’s easier to work with players who have already bought into the team’s ideology of inclusivity and one-for-all, all-for-one than having to indoctrinate newcomers. It’s a policy that has paid rich dividends over the years, with Dhoni the glue that has held the edifice together and Fleming the silent, inspirational, behind-the-scenes stabiliser that absorbs pressure but cracks the whip when the need arises.

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In that sense, Ashish Nehra isn’t too different from his Kiwi counterpart. The former India paceman is a genuine crowd-pleaser with his witticisms and his propensity to play the fool, but he is also a straight-talker and blessed with tremendous tactical acumen. In time, he might go on to become the Fleming of today but for now, he is comfortable in his own skin, striking up a fascinating relationship with Pandya, who himself has matured considerably in the last couple of years and emerged as a true leader of men.

Gill’s 851 runs and bowling trio’s 79 wickets

Gujarat’s strategic brilliance was obvious in the auction last year when they pieced together a squad that they worked hard to make fabulous, and when the opportunity presented itself, they added another attacking weapon to their bowling unit so that they now have bowlers who can strike in the Powerplay (Mohammed Shami), in the middle overs (Rashid Khan) and at the death (Mohit Sharma). Between them, this trio has a whopping 79 wickets which, allied with the unalloyed brilliance of Shubman Gill (851 runs) has piloted them to 11 victories in 16 matches. That said, win No. 12 will be no formality, not against any side led by Dhoni; Chennai have been neither timid nor indecisive, tailoring their approach by infusing oodles of batting aggression that has manifested itself in several tall totals.

In the past, Chennai’s home advantage had proved a double-edged sword. In their backyard at Chepauk, they were practically invincible as they used the slow, low surface to string together a bouquet of victories, but that turned counter-productive when they played tournament finals at what Fleming called ‘neutral venues‘ – an interesting term for this ground which, after all, is Gujarat’s home ground – where the demands were different. This year, the pitches at the MA Chidambaram Stadium have thrown up different challenges that, Fleming acknowledged, had played a big part in their successful campaign.

Both teams are ready for the big game – excited, nervous, anticipant and keyed up. Despite Dhoni, there will be greater support for Pandya’s men, one suspects, but you only write off the talismanic Jharkhandi and his team at your own peril, right?

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