The comeback of Chennai Super Kings and their fans was always going to be the flavour of this IPL season. At the end of the auctions earlier this year though, one couldn't help but feel a sense of scepticism with their choice of personnel. It appeared that CSK had put all their bets on the old and ageing guard. While the nostalgia factor was a great way to get their faithful fans to connect back with the team, the season may turn anticlimactic if the team doesn't win enough games.
Little did we know back then that as the phoenix of the Chennai franchise was rising from the ashes to wild cheers of "Whistlepodus" from the fans, the men who donned the yellow jersey were also getting inspired for a personal rebirth of sorts. This year for Chennai has as much been a story of individual revivals as it has been of team's resurgence. A lot has been said about the new and improved MS Dhoni 2.0, but along with him we also saw Ambati Rayudu with a service pack, Shane Watson with a performance upgrade, a refurbished and serviceable Harbhajan Singh, a hitherto unseen and exciting Deepak Chahar, all in the hands of an architect like Stephen Fleming who knew how to fine-tune and synergise each one of them to work towards a set team goal.
Chennai had a bizarre start to the season where they were almost out of the contest but managed to scrape through with a Dwayne Bravo blitzkrieg and a one-legged Kedar Jadhav's miraculous six in the final over. Unfortunately, that was the last we saw of Jadhav this season who was Chennai's most expensive buy on the auction day. Jadhav's presence was missed, but there were others who were happy to fill in. Throughout the season, Chennai and Hyderabad were the only two teams who were able to find like for like replacements for players out due to injury or form. No wonder they are the two teams on the top of the league standings this season.
CSK earned a reputation for chasing down almost any total from any situation. Sam Billings turned up in grand style in his first game for the franchise to see them home in their second game, against KKR, and Dhoni almost took the team beyond the finish line on his own in the third game against Punjab.
The team took a lot of confidence from winning those close games at the start of the season and were starting to look almost invincible at around the mid-season mark where they had won five out of their seven games.
The unlikely batting trump card emerging for the team at this point was Rayudu. A man Dhoni rates very highly and one who has always overpromised and underdelivered in his career. Rayudu along with Watson was forging the most formidable opening partnership of the season, but when the team needed, Rayudu was also showing great adaptability by going back down to the middle order and scoring useful runs.
You could always tell this was a motivated and driven unit. Shane Watson had credited his return to form to Dhoni's professionalism and drive. Dhoni carried a back injury for most of the season but never considered resting for one game. When your leader is putting everything on the line in that manner, it's easy to forget personal goals as a player and go all out for team's cause. That sense of team spirit was probably the biggest reason behind Chennai's success this season.
The only area that plagued the team throughout the season was their death bowling. The batsmen took a liking to Bravo, a man who is generally Dhoni's banker at the death and started picking and depositing his slower balls. Other options were tried, but nothing worked. In most games, Chennai began well with Chahar, Ngidi and co. picking early wickets but gave it away at the end with some loose death bowling. Bowlers failing to deliver at the death also brought out the angry side of Dhoni who was visibly upset on the field at his bowlers' failure to implement the plans that were set for them. Apart from proving that iceman Dhoni is human, his frustrations on the ground also showed how much this season means to him.
Despite the occasional setbacks, what stood out was Dhoni's honest and open assessment of the losses and the team taking immediate steps to fix them. The CSK captain talked about learning from the mistakes after every loss and at times even after a few victories. The team's ability to bounce back is highlighted from the fact that they never lost two games in a row this season.
In the last game, Dhoni showed everyone the funky side of his captaincy by sending Harbhajan and Chahar up the order to do some pinch hitting. The move paid off brilliantly as his team managed to comfortably close a chase that was looking a bit dicey midway through. Knowing Dhoni, one can be sure that he has saved a couple tricks up his sleeve that he may bring out in the playoffs to dazzle his opponents. The season has already been a dream come true for CSK fans, over the course of this week, Dhoni and his men have a chance to turn the dream into a fairy tale for the ages.