"IPL – A tournament where seven teams play to face CSK in final."
There is very little chance that you might not have come across these words over the last few years. As Faf du Plessis lofted one straight back over Bhuvneshwar Kumar's head for a six to spark wild celebrations in Qualifier 1 at the Wankhede, the above words rung loud again on social media. It has become a tagline for the CSK fans. Seven final appearances in nine seasons (missed out on two) is just staggering level of consistency.
It's a testament to their unity, hunger and astute auction strategy. Season after season, they have retained their core, a crucial step in their league success. This season was no different. They banked mainly on experience with an average squad age of 33 and were cheekily christened 'Dad's Army' and they were in action straight away. MS Dhoni (36), Shane Watson (37), Dwayne Bravo (34), Ambati Rayudu (32) have made telling contributions in CSK's success so far. It is this experience that has helped them pull off tight chases, match after match. Also, this experience has made sure that they don't lose two matches in a row at any point in the league. Dhoni explained the importance of experience in the team after Du Plessis' heroics.
As Chennai head into the final against SRH at the Wankhede Stadium in Mumbai, it will again be the experience, this time the big match experience, that might prove to be crucial in helping them lift their third title.
No SRH player from the current squad has been part of more than three IPL finals, while there are six players from the CSK bunch who have played more than three IPL finals – MS Dhoni (7), Suresh Raina (6), Murali Vijay (4), Ambati Rayudu (4), Dwayne Bravo (4) and Ravindra Jadeja (4). Apart from Vijay, the rest five are guaranteed starters unless Dhoni has some other 'chaotic' plans. This will be 13th T20 final for both Dhoni and Raina – the most among Indian players. For SRH, Yusuf Pathan has played most IPL finals with three.
There is no shortage of big match players in CSK. Raina has scored 209 runs, the most by any player in IPL finals, at an average of 41.80 and a strike rate of 163.28. Bravo has taken eight wickets in four IPL finals, the most by any bowler, at an average of 17.75. Overall, he has taken the second-most number of wickets in all T20 finals- 16 from 15 matches at 25.93.
"The CSK dressing room is full of energy though people say that the team is filled with overage cricketers," Harbhajan Singh , who has been a part of three IPL finals, told Firstpost "But our success shows what experience brings to the table. When you have so many experienced players in one dressing room, you will do well. You will come out of those tricky situations as winners and that's what has happened," he added.
The other important factor in CSK's success is their collective effort. Someone or the other has put his hand up when the team looked in trouble which is testified by the fact that eight different players have bagged the Man of the Match award this season, most in any team. The batting looks formidable with four players scoring over 400 runs – Rayudu (586), Dhoni (455), Watson (438), Raina (413). Dhoni's reinvigoration as a T20 batsman has been one of the key reasons behind CSK's surge.
However, it might all come down to how they tackle the talk of the town – Rashid Khan. The laptops would be out, analysts would be working overtime watching re-runs, searching a way to decode the leg-spinner. Rashid has been a revelation in T20 cricket and has been riding a crest in the last one-and-half years. He is the only bowler to take 100-plus wickets in T20 cricket since 2017. He has taken 118 wickets from 82 T20s. The next best during the same period is 89 by Sunil Narine from 89 T20s. He has impressed big time for the second year running in the IPL and has been a vital cog in SRH's wheel. The 25-year-old is the only overseas leg-spinner to take 20-plus wickets in an IPL season. The previous highest was 19 by Shane Warne in 2008. He is the only overseas bowler to win four MoM awards in an IPL season and in the matches where he has scalped two or more wickets, which is 10 times, his team has won 80 percent of those games.
Ahead of Qualifier 2, the broadcaster captured one of the most telling images of the league – that of Rashid walking back to his run-up with an intense stare during practice. That image defined Rashid the cricketer – passionate and battle-hardened. Sachin Tendulkar declared him the best spinner in T20s after his performance against KKR in Qualifier 2.
Rashid's greatest strength is his unpredictability and ability to spin the ball at a considerable pace which gives the batsmen very little time to react and adjust. His killer googly is lethal. And he might enjoy bowling on a Wankhede track which has always had a little bit of pace and bounce on offer, along with spin. He is also a big-match player gobbler. In this IPL, he has dismissed Jos Buttler, KL Rahul and AB de Villiers twice and also the likes of Virat Kohli, MS Dhoni, Kieron Pollard, Chris Lynn and Andre Russell once.
CSK haven't given away much to Rashid this season. They have won all the three matches against SRH with Rashid scalping three wickets from three matches at an average of 28.33 and economy rate of 7.08. He was hammered for 4-0-49-1 in the first outing in Hyderabad and then went wicketless in Pune with 4-0-25-0. However, he bounced back in Qualifier 1 with figures of 4-0-11-2 and it is this ability of his that will keep CSK on their toes.
"We are very fortunate to have Rashid Khan in our team. He's been outstanding throughout the whole campaign and hopefully tomorrow night he can do it all over again," Williamson said in the pre-match conference.
SRH's strength has always been their bowling attack but in the last five matches, they have lost their way a bit. Rashid showed them the way in Qualifier 2 against KKR. No wonder Williamson wants to keep him 'wrapped up' for the big game.
While SRH's bowling department needs improvement, the batsmen too, need to up the ante. They have been overly dependent on Williamson (688 runs) and Shikhar Dhawan (471 runs). They are the only two batsmen to have amassed more than 300 runs in the league so far. The rest need to step up on the big stage. CSK's main worry has been their death over bowling. They have conceded 60-plus runs five times in the death overs (16-20) during the league stage of IPL – the joint most times by any team along with KKR and RCB. Fielding is another aspect that needs tightening.
While Dhoni brought in the 'Chaos' theory to rattle Kings XI Punjab, it will be interesting to see what tactical mastery he has in store for Rashid and how Williamson utilises his premier spinner. Both the teams might not want to tamper with the winning combination and might go in with same side.
Yes, CSK have reached seven finals, but this one will be different. Their return after two years had made even the phlegmatic Dhoni emotional. And when the CSK captain leads his team out on the Wankhede turf, the same venue where he sent billions into delirium on that unforgettable night in the World Cup final eight years ago, emotions will run high.
Will the 'Thala' make CSK's return extra special for the Yellow Brigade? Or will Rashid wield his magic wand again for the Orange Army? Any which way, Wankhede is in for a cracker on what promises to be a Super Sunday.
- MS Dhoni has scored 87 runs off Bhuvneshwar Kumar without getting dismissed in IPL – the most a player scored against him without getting dismissed.
- Seven of 10 IPL finals have been won by teams batting first. CSK have won two IPL finals and both while batting first - in 2010 and 2011 while SRH won it in 2016 and that also while batting first.
- Rashid Khan was the highest wicket-taker in T20 cricket in 2017 with 80 wickets at an average of 14.75 and an economy rate of 5.53. He is also the joint highest wicket-taker in T20 cricket in 2018 with 38 wickets at an average of 17.42 and an economy rate of 6.36.
- Teams batting first and second have won four times each at the Wankhede this season.
- CSK lost 16 wickets in the powerplay overs during the league stages matches – the least by any team while SRH lost 22 wickets in the powerplay overs during the league stage matches - the joint second most by any team.
- SRH scalped 32 wickets in the death overs during the league stage matches of this season – the second most by any team.
- CSK not panicking while needing of 40-plus runs in the last three overs this IPL:
47 off 2.5 overs vs MI, Wankhede
41 off 2.5 overs vs KKR, Chennai
44 off 2.4 overs vs RCB, Bangalore
43 off 2.1 overs vs SRH, Wankhede
With stat inputs from Umang Pabari