Even in unprecedented times like the one the world is going through now, there are some certainties in life. Taxes and Chennai Super Kings (CSK) in the Indian Premier League (IPL) playoffs. The three-time champion has been the epitome of ruthless efficiency, reaching the final four – the first target for all teams – in every edition it has been a part of.
The 2020 edition though has posed a slew of challenges for one of the most consistent sides in the competition with few players testing positive for the novel coronavirus after reaching the United Arab Emirates (UAE). Soon after that, vice-captain Suresh Raina and off-spinner Harbhajan Singh pulled out of the tournament citing personal reasons with the former returning to India after travelling to the UAE while the latter did not even join the squad.
CSK, led by its talismanic leader Mahendra Singh Dhoni, will look to maintain a sense of calm through these turbulent times. For a side with such remarkable consistency in the shortest format of the game, CSK continues to be unique in the way it approaches Twenty20 matches.
After the 2018 auction, the three-time champion was termed “Dad’s Army” after the team picked a majority of players on the wrong side of the 30s. However, it still managed to go all the way and make it a fairytale return after a two year hiatus from the tournament because of a suspension. A year later, it lost by the skin of its teeth in a humdinger — just one run separating it and the Mumbai Indians.
CSK’s mantra has been to bank on experienced players who can be consistent and deliver in crunch situations. The team prefers conventional batsmen to brute ball-bashers, and functional bowlers to outright quicks or mystery spinners.
Going into the 2020 edition, the Chennai team had only a few spots to fill. In the mini-auction held in December 2019, it made some unconventional picks that stumped many.
Despite possessing a formidable spin arsenal – Harbhajan Singh, Ravindra Jadeja and Karn Sharma in addition to foreign recruits Imran Tahir and Mitchell Santner – the team decided to splurge on Piyush Chawla.
Given that the leg-spinner did not have an impressive time in the 2019 season – he took just 10 wickets – it was an interesting call. However, Chawla is highly experienced in the IPL and will provide a solid backup to Tahir, giving the Super Kings the option of fielding an extra foreigner. His batting can be handy at times when even a few quick runs could make a huge difference.
Another left-field pick was Josh Hazlewood, to shore up the pace bowling department, especially keeping in mind Lungi Ngidi’s fitness concerns. The Australian, though, last played an international T20 match four years ago (in 2016), but the team management feels he could be the X factor as not many in India have seen him bowl. Hazlewood is a bowler who can hit the deck hard and could be a tactical choice on pitches that have a good bounce.
A player to watch out for from the new recruits will be the young England all-rounder Sam Curran, who can be an ideal backup to Dwayne Bravo. The left-arm pacer will provide variety to the attack and has the right temperament to handle big occasions.
Before the season, the biggest question mark was surrounding skipper Dhoni who hasn’t played competitive cricket since July 2019.
Now that the former India captain has called time on his international career, it will be interesting to see how he approaches in what are the final laps of his career, and whether he will play with more freedom.
Over the last two years, one player who has stood out for the Super Kings has been Deepak Chahar. The Rajasthan pacer holds the key to the bowling attack and it remains to be seen how fit he will be when he recovers from the coronavirus.
Shardul Thakur, the other India paceman, has not been as consistent as Chahar and CSK would need the latter to be fully ready to provide the breakthroughs with the new ball.
This is also the year the DA (Dad’s Army) tag could come back to haunt the team. Key players like Chawla and Ambati Rayudu are a year older and don’t play a lot of cricket apart from the IPL. The team has tried to cover it with substantive preparatory camps both in March and then in August before leaving for the IPL.
With Raina not part of the team, the promising Ruturaj Gaikwad could get an eye in provided he too regains fitness when he recovers from the coronavirus.
The biggest advantage for CSK in the IPL has been its fortress: the M. A. Chidambaram Stadium. No team plays to its strength at home like the Chennai outfit which is something the team will dearly miss now that the tournament will be played in the UAE.
The team has identified spin as its weapon, making Chepauk its den, consistently winning at least a major part of its seven games at home. This, plus a few away victories, is often enough for the team to ease into the playoffs. So how the team adapts to the pitches in the UAE will determine its progress this year.
Despite the challenges, the Dhoni-led team with the astute Stephen Fleming as the coach knows what it takes to win matches. They go about their work methodically sans huge peaks and troughs.
A fourth crown will see CSK pull level with the Mumbai Indians as the most successful side in the IPL. While it is difficult to predict whether a team could go all the way so far out, the yellow brigade always gives itself the best chance by being in the business end of the tournament every single time. It will take a special effort from the other teams to stop CSK in its tracks before the playoffs, for the first time in history.
The squad: M. S. Dhoni (captain), N. Jagadeesan, Ruturaj Gaikwad, K. M. Asif, Ravindra Jadeja, M. Vijay, M.S. Dhoni, Josh Hazlewood, Kedar Jadhav, Karn Sharma, Piyush Chawla, Ambati Rayudu, Imran Tahir, Deepak Chahar, Faf du Plessis, Shardul Thakur, Mitchell Santner, Dwayne Bravo, Lungi Ngidi, Sam Curran, Monu Kumar, Shane Watson, Sai Kishore.
Top three run-getters
Top three wicket-takers
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