The phoenix called CSK rose silently from ashes of a catastrophic 2020 IPL
CSK know what it takes to win the big moments, big matches, big titles: Photo: IPL Twitter

The phoenix called CSK rose silently from ashes of a catastrophic 2020 IPL

At the end of their disastrous run in 2020 when they finished seventh among eight teams and failed to progress beyond the first stage for the only time in 11 campaigns, Chennai Super Kings made a quiet pledge: Season 13 of the Indian Premier League (IPL) would not define them; it would only be an aberration, that at the very least, they would make it to the playoffs the following year.

CSK aren’t big on hoopla. They didn’t shout out their mission statement from the rooftops, they didn’t seek refuge in their glittering past record to wish away horrendous performances in the UAE last year. Typically, they went about restructuring with prudence and perspicacity, refraining from the knee-jerk reactions that more trigger-happy franchises have fallen prey to. They kept faith in their processes and philosophy of inclusiveness and constancy.

By becoming the first team to advance past the league phase in the two-phased IPL 2021, CSK had already fulfilled their first promise. But this isn’t a team satisfied with just scratching the surface. It’s a proud franchise helmed by an understated skipper in whom the fire rages despite four decades spent on this planet. The players perhaps didn’t need Mahendra Singh Dhoni to point out that making the playoffs was only the means, not an end in itself; nevertheless, the Jharkhandi talisman must have spelt out the priorities even though the Chennai franchise took no momentum whatsoever to the business end of the tournament.

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CSK entered Qualifier 1 on the back of a hat-trick of losses, despite which they had two shots at making the final by virtue of finishing second in the league, behind Delhi Capitals. Hitherto struggling to get his lines right with the bat, the captain dug deep into his memory bank to turn the clock back with a vintage assault that netted him the most crucial 18 runs of his career (off six balls) and catapult his team to their ninth final in the history of the tournament.

What Dhoni’s pyrotechnics did for the ‘emotional’ well-being of the side – as coach Stephen Fleming put it – and for the morale of the fans can’t be expressed in words. For CSK fans, he is not a cricketer, legend or superstar; he is a movement, an emotion, the life breath sustaining them. To see thala lead the charge, unexpectedly (though they might not admit), convinced them that title No. 4 was a mere formality.

Up against them in Friday night’s face-off in the Dubai final were the resurgent Kolkata Knight Riders, who dramatically overturned a disastrous start with a searing second-half run. Having won just two of seven matches in India in April-May, they stormed through the field in the desert sands, winning five of their last seven league clashes to sneak into the playoffs on net run rate as the fourth-placed side. Extending their rejuvenation, they secured nervy wins in the eliminator against Royal Challengers Bangalore and in Qualifier 2 against the dispirited Capitals to put them on the cusp of becoming only the second team, after Sunrisers Hyderabad in 2016, to finish outside the top two in the league phase and yet go on to win the title.

It seemed the momentum was with them, but CSK know what it takes to win the big moments, the big matches, the big titles. From the time they were put in on a fine batting strip by Eoin Morgan, they took the game by the scruff of the neck. In Ruturaj Gaikwad and Faf du Plessis, they had an opening pair for the ages. KL Rahul and Mayank Agarwal of Punjab Kings were also a tremendous opening combo, but their efforts weren’t enough to secure their team a place even in the playoffs. By contrast, the emerging Gaikwad and the hard-nosed du Plessis didn’t take anything for granted, taking it upon themselves to bat deep and not expose the middle-order to the pressures of two new batsmen at the crease.

Gaikwad and du Plessis, fittingly, finished 1 and 2 respectively in the race for the Orange Cap. It was no surprise that their opening salvo again set the tone for a muscular batting performance. Moeen Ali at No. 4 provided the acceleration the situation demanded as du Plessis batted on before being dismissed off the last ball of the innings. Moeen’s success story sums up the efficacy of the CSK culture and the Dhoni touch of reassurance. The England all-rounder hasn’t been in better mental space ever before – not for his country, not for other franchises in the IPL. In Chennai, Dhoni encouraged Moeen to express himself without inhibition, and created a place for him in the top four. The left-hander responded in style time after time, his free-spirited strokeplay the perfect follow-up to the platforms erected by Gaikwad and du Plessis.

KKR seemed to be making a match of it through a chancy opening stand between Venkatesh Iyer and Shubman Gill, but there was no trace of panic on CSK faces. Dhoni was inscrutable as ever, the bowling persistent without being threatening until Ravindra Jadeja took the catch to see Iyer’s back. It was just a teeny, tiny opening. How CSK stepped up to chip away at the opening and expand it to barndoor proportions was the story of the final. Suddenly, the energy levels perked up. It was as if they had 15 fielders on the field and KKR started to find the noose tightening around their necks.

Also read: Behind CSK’s Phoenix-like rise is the magic of a man called Dhoni​

Even as they started to dominate overwhelmingly, CSK didn’t veer from their normal game. Wickets were prised rather than blasted out, the cuts were swift and several but precise rather than deep and copiously bleeding. KKR tried to seal one wound but could only look on helplessly as several opened up simultaneously, eventually waving the white flag of surrender to the CSK Lion.

Mission accomplished, thank you very much. And see you in 2022.

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