CSK: Back to business

After two years out of the IPL, Chennai Super Kings has seamlessly returned to previous seasons’ consistency and success even as its old soldiers have rolled back the years.

Dhoni, incredibly fit at 36, encapsulates the spirit of CSK, and the charismatic captain lends the team a pan-India popularity.

The ball floated in the air towards A.B. de Villiers, bounced and spun down the leg side past his attempted reverse sweep, and the ’keeper whipped off the bails with his usual incredible speed. The stumper — also his team’s captain — made subtle adjustments to the field, arms waving or rotating to send his message across, narrowing down angles. On this day, it was his finger spinners who strangled the opposition — the wrist spinner had been left out.

Later, under the floodlights, Mahendra Singh Dhoni used his powerful wrists and bat speed to bludgeon the ball over the fence, and he sprinted like a hare between the wickets.

It was just another day in the office for the Chennai Super Kings captain — against the Royal Challengers Bangalore in Pune on this occasion — who remains tactically suave, electric with the gloves and brutal with the bat.

Dhoni, incredibly fit at 36, encapsulates the spirit of CSK. It’s a lively, rollicking side with a sense of adventure, an outfit that can fight its way through challenges, breeze past its adversaries. The immensely popular team is roaring along in IPL-11, mowing down opponents with its batting might and varied bowling attack.

Its charismatic captain lends CSK a pan-India popularity. And this has been a season where the fans — a sea of yellow wherever the team goes — have breached security barriers and stormed arenas seeking Dhoni’s “blessings.” Ahead of this edition of the IPL, the team’s practice sessions in Chennai attracted around 10,000 spectators, and there were constant chants of “Dhoni, Dhoni.”

In the wilderness

Big winner: CSK has been the most consistent and successful IPL franchise, winning the tournament twice, reaching the final another two times and making the play-offs on a further three occasions.   -  PTI

 

In its return to the star-studded tournament after a two-year suspension, CSK has shown much heart and belief in itself. It had gone through a harrowing period when its very existence as an IPL franchise had seemed under threat following the betting scandal in 2015. The team was at the centre of the controversy as it travelled to Kolkata for the final that year against the Mumbai Indians. CSK lost that match, but the team lived on.

During its period of isolation, the franchise kept itself going. Its talent scouts were active, junior tournaments were organised and plans were put in place for its return in 2018.

After all, CSK has been the most consistent and successful IPL franchise, winning the tournament twice, reaching the final another two times and making the play-offs on a further three occasions. That’s in addition to its two titles in the now-defunct Champions League Twenty20.

Old hands

The retention of Dhoni — his name is synonymous with CSK — Suresh Raina and Ravindra Jadeja meant the franchise was not without familiar names for the 2018 IPL edition. Another old soldier, Dwayne Bravo, was also brought back. But when CSK purchased Shane Watson, the seemingly over-the-hill Australian all-rounder; off-spinner Harbhajan Singh, his best days behind him, and ageing leg-spinner Imran Tahir, the franchise came under considerable fire for its conservative thinking in a format where the young often hold sway. After the auction, CSK was mocked by numerous critics, some dubbing it “Dad’s Army.” And there were many who said the team was an advertisement for 30-plus pills.

That was not all. The Cauvery agitation in Chennai meant CSK could only play one game at its bastion, the M.A. Chidambaram Stadium, winning a thriller against the Kolkata Knight Riders. The attack had been picked keeping the spin-friendly surfaces at Chepauk in mind. Once CSK’s matches were moved to Pune, the side had to rework its strategy and mindset. Home was now away from home.

CSK was up against it as the season began. It had spent two years away from the competition, and its choices at the auction had been trolled. Then it went on to win eight of its first 12 games. It lost just once at home (at the time of writing).

Bucking the odds

The team bucked the odds and reinvented itself, much like what skipper Dhoni had done earlier to expand his off-side play. And many of its old soldiers, repaying the belief shown in them, have rolled back the years. Bravo has sent down yorkers and slower deliveries with precision and batted with power and verve at the death. Watson’s century against the Rajasthan Royals was a blistering effort; he has muscled the ball around this tournament, and his useful seamers have abetted his performance.

Harbhajan has operated with control and craft, bringing all his experience to the fore. He has varied his pace and trajectory, used the crease and not provided width to the batsmen. Crucially, the wily off-spinner has managed to extricate both spin and bounce.

A side with all-rounders and multidimensional cricketers, CSK has options in bowling, depth in batting and an overall balance that is hard to find. And like most successful sides, it has several match-winners.

Rayudu’s heroics

Ambati Rayudu has been a revelation with his fluid yet explosive stroke-play, be it jumping down the track for big hits or rocking back for cuts and pulls. He has been the floater in the batting order, able to build partnerships and take the game away from the opposition. And the mercurial Raina—such a valuable player in this format—has come up with some delightful cameos.

But CSK’s bowling is not without its issues. Its young domestic pacemen, despite glimpses of promise, have been erratic (though the pacey K.M. Asif has shown potential). In this context, the addition of the fast and consistent Lungi Ngidi has given the attack another dimension.

Fanatical followers: This has been a season where the fans — a sea of yellow wherever the team goes — have breached security barriers and stormed arenas seeking Dhoni’s ‘blessings’.   -  K. R. Deepak

 

Jadeja’s bowling form has been patchy, but the left-arm spinner did deliver a match-winning performance against RCB — a screaming armer that dismissed Virat Kolhi.

And in the humdingers — CSK has featured in several — Dhoni’s composure under mounting pressure and his ability to pick the moments and bowlers to strike have been clinching factors.

Given that many of its players are no longer young — ageing heroes do give the side an element of romance — CSK is not a great fielding unit. But, like Dhoni points out, it can be a “safe” one.

Despite its doubters, the spirit of the Super Kings has shone through this season. The Men in Yellow are back in business.

And the team has made the play-offs, once again, roaring along much like the ‘Whistle Podu’ Express that transports its exuberant fans from Chennai to Pune.

CSK's Fab Four

 

Shane Watson, the big-built all-rounder has been through it all—from being the poster boy of Australian cricket to being ravaged by critics for his indifferent form. His was a bold pick by CSK. Watson is getting on in years—he is 36—and was largely ineffective the previous season with the Royal Challenger Bangalore. But Dhoni cleverly made Watson open the innings, and the heavy-hitter rediscovered his mojo. His 57-ball 106 against the Rajasthan Royals was a typical effort, full of cuts, pulls and booming drives. He launched into the Delhi Daredevils attack, too, during an innings of 78. And while Watson might have lost his pace as a seamer, he is still a canny customer who can get the ball to deviate either way.

 

Not so long ago, M.S. Dhoni was unable to deliver those “killer blows” in the end overs. Teams were able to limit him outside the off stump, with leg spinners and left-arm spinners turning the ball away and pacemen bowling yorkers outside off. Now, he is once against the explosive finisher. Having reworked his technique, he opens the bat face, putting less pressure on his bottom hand and giving him greater fluency and range on the off side. Dhoni now shuffles, too, enabling him to get in line with the stumps and hit on either side. He has kept wickets brilliantly—Dhoni has the quickest hands in the business—and has led with guts and imagination.   -  Photo: R. Ragu

 
 
 

The Trinidadian, Dwayne Bravo, despite all his years, brings with him freshness and freedom. His 30-ball 68, with a whopping seven sixes, gunned down the Mumbai Indians in a thriller at the Wankhede. His full-on slash-drive is really a patented stoke, and he also possesses a natural fluency on the leg-side. Bravo is a distinct threat every time he walks to the crease in the lower middle order. With the ball, the vibrant Bravo delivers at the death with his yorkers and changes in pace. He’s a clever customary who often out-thinks the batsman. And then there’s his electric fielding.   -  Photo: AFP

 

Harbhajan Singh does the simple things right. He bowls a good off-stump line, with subtle changes in his line and trajectory and making key use of the crease. The off-spinner’s accuracy—dot balls are not uncommon when he bowls—means the pressure mounts on the batsmen, leading them to make desperate and often fatal mistakes. These are days when Harbhajan relies more on conventional off-spin than on the one turning away from the right-hander. Vastly experienced, he holds his nerve in tense duels. Harbhajan took out A.B. de Villiers with a flighted delivery that drifted down leg for Dhoni to complete a lightning-quick stumping in the game against the Royal Challengers Bangalore.   -  Photo: AFP