Lion King of the jungle

Coach Stephen Fleming's chemistry with skipper M. S. Dhoni is excellent.-PTI

Will the Big Cat from Chennai continue to roar in the IPL? While most teams wear a new look after the colourful auction in Bangalore, CSK has retained the core of the side that raised the bar for excellence last season. Over to S. Dinakar.

These magnificent men in luminous yellow conquered the season gone by. On view was the precious ability to look adversity in the eye and orchestrate sensational comebacks.

A sense of togetherness is Chennai Super Kings' biggest virtue. The players back each other, blend as a unit. This side is hard to break. The scene from the not-so-distant past is etched in memory.

On a typically sweltering afternoon in Chennai, the cricketers felt the heat in the yet-to-be-renovated M. A. Chidambaram Stadium. Chennai Super Kings was under fire. Off to a disastrous beginning and then struggling to find rhythm, this star-studded team faced elimination before the knock-out phase last season.

Much of the media had written the side off. It was felt that the team was weak on the pace bowling front and lacked imagination. Indeed, CSK had appeared rather laborious on the field.

It is against this backdrop that Mahendra Singh Dhoni took a breather from the practice session at Chepauk. Even as his body rested, his mind ticked. He followed the action in the middle with a steely gaze, his eyes picking up little things. The determined Dhoni was still confident.

A rejuvenated CSK would fly again. Self belief is an essential commodity and this side has it in plenty. Cricketers put their hands up in crunch situations. And heroes emerged.

Doug Bollinger's arrival transformed the pace bowling front, opener Murali Vijay stunned just about everyone with his calculated onslaughts, R. Ashwin's control, variety and calmness of mind enabled the off-spinner to contain and strike, the mercurial Suresh Raina confirmed he was a game changer, heavy-hitter Albie Morkel impacted with his all-round ability, S. Badrinath's commitment gleamed and the legendary Muttiah Muralitharan bowled with flight, dip and deception.

All along, Dhoni was both a captain and a leader. He was on the ball tactically and displayed the heart and guts of a leader. Dhoni's bold innings of rousing and innovative strokeplay against Kings XI Punjab at the death in Dharamsala catapulted his team to the semifinal.

South African Faf du Plessis (left) and Sri Lankan Suraj Randiv (right) are newcomers who add value to the side.-K. PICHUMANI

And CSK held its nerve against Mumbai Indians in the summit clash to emerge victorious. The most consistent team in the IPL, CSK progressed to the final in season I and then made it to the semifinal in the second edition.

After the success in IPL III, the CSK party continued in South Africa. Once again, the side displayed character and resilience. The left-handed Michael Hussey delivered when it mattered the most — in the final of the Champions League T20. CSK had won a unique double of the IPL and the Champions League titles. It truly was the Lion King of the jungle.

Will the Big Cat from Chennai continue to roar in the IPL? While most teams wear a new look after the colourful auction in Bangalore, CSK has retained the core of the side that raised the bar for excellence last season.

The Chennai team's logic was simple. Why tamper with a winning combination? After all, this is a side that plays the key moments of a contest well, handles pressure situations capably. The side kept Dhoni, Raina, Albie Morkel and M. Vijay — it used up the maximum available limit of $4.5 out of a total of $9 million for retaining players out of auction.

Then, during the hectic bidding, the franchise won back Michael Hussey, Badrinath, Ashwin and Bollinger. “This team was performing and bonding so well that we decided against changes. We also wanted a strong local flavour which is important,” said Gurunath Meiyappan of CSK.

Muralitharan, the livewire, is missing from the ranks though. CSK bid till $1 million for the Sri Lankan spin legend but Kochi Tuskers quoted a higher price. “We went as far as we could for Murali. Beyond that we had to look at our purse,” said Gurunath.

Apart from his spin and guile, Murali is a vibrant personality who can keep the spirits in the dressing room high, particularly during tense, testing moments. “He is such a phenomenal cricketer but goes out of his way to reach out to the younger bunch. This is a great quality,” Gurunath said.

All-round abilities... Albie Morkel and Scott Styris.-PTI

With only $4.5 million left for the auction, CSK needed to be wise and careful with its money. It managed to walk the tightrope. CSK was keen on keeping the affable home boy, L. Balaji, as well but was not willing to shell out the $5 million that Kolkata Knight Riders paid for the paceman. However, CSK covered its flanks well. While it no longer has the engaging Murali, the side has signed rising off-spinner from Sri Lanka, Suraj Randiv. The lanky bowler has interesting possibilities.

While CSK has always been a batting powerhouse with big hitters and depth, the side has made a conscious attempt to strengthen its bowling. Right-arm swing bowler Ben Hilfenhaus was signed to combine with the left-arm cut and bounce of Bollinger. However, Hilfenhaus' fitness concerns forced the franchise to sign Tim Southee, a huge success for New Zealand in the recently concluded World Cup. A revamped paceman, Southee is stronger, quicker and can swing the ball from a straight-line. The Kiwi paceman has already pulled his weight in the side by sending down a tremendous game-clinching final over of precise yorkers in the IPL Season IV opener against Kolkata Knight Riders at Chepauk. At the Death, a nerveless CSK lived.

When the injured Bollinger returns later in the month to partner Southee, this left-right pair of contrasts could lend another dimension to the CSK attack. And Morkel's role as the third seamer will be critical. The battle-scarred Scott Styris brings with him experience and steel. He is a fighter in an old fashioned sense; Styris puts a price on his wicket without getting bogged down and can send down accurate cutters to add weight to the attack.

South African Faf du Plessis is an exciting buy. His powerful strokeplay is guided by a mature head. When things hot up, he keeps his cool. As the season unfolds, the calm and calculated Michael Hussey and versatile all-rounder Dwayne Bravo will join the side.

Coach Stephen Fleming's chemistry with Dhoni is an excellent one. The former New Zealand captain is a smart strategist and a good motivator of men. Someone who reads the flow of the game extremely well, the insightful Fleming's inputs have propelled the side. And he has a keen eye for picking and honing talent.

Meanwhile, several young cricketers are taking flight. Attacking opener Anirudha Srikkanth has made an impression in Season IV with his bold methods. He is a clean striker of the ball, is not daunted by reputations. Anirudha's strokeful 64 against KKR at Chepauk recently swung the game in CSK's favour. This popular side has lifted its levels of fielding and managed to create the sort of pressure that complements bowling and puts the batsmen under stress.

This is a team that has grown in stature and popularity. The stars of CSK even feature in a comic book where the kids can see their heroes in different roles and missions!

The chances are that CSK would make the semifinals this season. If not derailed by injuries, this side has the potential to go all the way in Season IV too.