Brilliant Yellow

Dwayne Bravo and Ravindra Jadeja have shown their mettle in high-pressure situations.-PTI

In the ongoing IPL, Chennai Super Kings and Rajasthan Royals have shown commendable consistency. Shreedutta Chidananda takes stock.

The IPL, the joke goes, is a competition where eight teams battle to play Chennai Super Kings in the final. It’s a well-worn gag but a decent one nonetheless, for it’s not without foundation. CSK remains the league’s single most consistent side, now after four finals in five years firmly on course for yet another appearance. The team’s unshakable strength in crunch situations, its air of infallibility, continues to deflate rival supporters. CSK often gives them hope, but just as swiftly takes it away. Hence is consolation sought in humour, a wry resignation to fate.

At the heart of this continued success has been a strong core of Indian players — M. S. Dhoni, M. Vijay, Suresh Raina and R. Ashwin — all still at the peak of their careers, and all part of the setup from the outset. And along the way, the squad has been steadily strengthened. Dwayne Bravo and Faf du Plessis were signed ahead of the 2011 season, and Ravindra Jadeja a year later.

Jadeja, though, was a disappointment in his first time in yellow and CSK, scrabbling for the authority of previous years, only just snuck into the play-offs. Although the final was then made with conviction — a mark of a champion team that knows how to take its chances — nobody, it was clear, wished a repeat of the uncertainty.

It is evident this time around that if there were any other breaches, they have been plugged emphatically. CSK’s seven-game winning streak, equalling the IPL record, has been no accident. The defeat to Mumbai Indians may have been as abrupt as it was inexplicable, but it was, as Sunrisers Hyderabad promptly found out, an aberration. Later, CSK also couldn’t put it past Rajasthan Royals in the latter’s fortress, Jaipur.

“It’s been different from other campaigns we have been part of,” the coach Stephen Fleming said earlier this month. “It’s not been stop and start; we have been very consistent this year. I would not say we have been dominant; we have just been out there in the middle and winning games.”

Michael Hussey, relieved of the pressures of international cricket, looks his strikingly efficient old self, his five half-centuries making him the team’s highest run-scorer (614 in 13 games). In Chris Morris and Mohit Sharma, who were signed ahead of the season, CSK has found two able seamers. The latter has been a revelation, bowling economically in the Powerplay overs and frequently completing his quota inside the first 10.

Jadeja has looked — to borrow a cliché — like a new signing. He held his nerve against Royal Challengers Bangalore to help pull off an improbable win, and rescued CSK from an increasingly thorny situation at Kolkata.

Dhoni and Raina have also been dominant, to the point that CSK looks frighteningly well-rounded. But quietly pivotal to this success has been Bravo, the side’s highest wicket-taker last season and this time the holder of the league’s ‘purple cap’ at the time of writing with 22 victims. Dhoni deploys the Trinidadian at the death where his assortment of cutters, wide yorkers and slower deliveries are often fiendishly hard to put away. While it could be argued that his wicket-taking is overstated, for he operates when batsmen are most desperate, his value to the side is never in question. In a format where games are decided on fine margins, Bravo’s fielding and his composure have been critical.

Rahul Dravid (right) has led from the front, while Ajinkya Rahane has let his willow talk.-G.V. MOORTHY

Where CSK has seen little difference in its ‘home’ and ‘away’ performances, indeed thriving on the road, the other likely play-off teams have offered a shrill contrast. Rajasthan Royals (a clean sweep of 8 out of 8 at home), Mumbai Indians (6/6), and Royal Challengers Bangalore (6/6) have all flourished on their own patch but struggled outside.

Rahul Dravid’s men have been stellar in Jaipur, winning all eight out of eight and ensuring that all convenient fortress references, while trite, remain thoroughly relevant. James Faulkner, the league’s third-best bowler (19 wickets at the time of writing), Siddharth Trivedi, Kevon Cooper and the likes of Shane Watson and Stuart Binny have all enjoyed bowling on the friendly surface at the Sawai Mansingh Stadium. Against KKR, Dravid packed his eleven with five seamers, an approach that duly paid dividend.

Dravid, with a steady lieutenant in Ajinkya Rahane, has been at the forefront of Rajasthan’s revival. Last year, RR stayed in contention for the playoffs till the final two games, but ultimately finished seventh. This time, progress is not in any great doubt.

Rahane, the side’s highest scorer last season (560 runs), is top of the run charts again. Dravid and he have eight fifties between them, and allied to Watson’s firepower, have constructed an enviable top order for Rajasthan.

Sanju Samson’s brilliance and James Faulkner’s incisive bowling have been welcome fortifications. “We have got more depth in our squad, compared to what we have had over the previous few years, which means we have got a few more options to play with,” Watson said recently. “The guys who have come in have done unbelievably well.”

But the imbalance between home and away performances is a curious one. With the exception of the 2009 IPL, which was conducted in South Africa, all previous editions have seen teams win only close to half their games at home.

This time, 42 of 61 matches in the IPL — more than two-thirds — have been won by the home side. With the exception of Pune Warriors and Delhi Daredevils, who have simply been poor throughout, every team has won more than it has lost at home. Similarly, but for CSK, all sides have tasted defeat more than victory away; whereas in 2012, five teams did better on their travels than at their home venues (KKR and MI in fact lost only once away from home during the league stages).

What, then, has changed this year? Favourable pitches and travel fatigue, reasons that have been offered, ought to have been factors in previous seasons as well; fan loyalties could not have amplified over one year to the point of influencing results so much.

“Home advantage is really no big thing when you’re playing within India; it has been blown out of proportion,” says the former India and Karnataka batsman Vijay Bharadwaj, now a coach with the RCB development squad. “It is just a coincidence. We need to look at the margins of victory; RCB lost in the Super Over to SRH, off the last ball to CSK and to a fine innings in Mohali. All these could have easily gone either way.

“Of course the awareness of conditions in your own ground helps, but even rival teams have good players. If you manipulate the conditions, it will backfire.”