In 2015, when the Supreme Court-appointed Justice Lodha committee decided to hand out two-year bans to Chennai Super Kings (CSK) and Rajasthan Royals (RR) over charges of betting, the then eight-year-old Indian Premier League (IPL) was in its lowest ebb.
Though the players of both the teams continued to ply their wares in the other franchises in the next two years, the loyal fandom had to silently weather the storm. Especially, the Chennai Super Kings fans who had built up a reputation of being fiercely loyal to one of the most consistent teams in IPL history.
In 2018, when both the teams made their way back into the IPL fold, they faced a major hurdle of making the right squad composition. If there was a consensus over anything in this IPL, it is that the CSK squad was filled with a bunch of old-timers who more or less were past their prime.
However, the MS Dhoni-led CSK decided to prove match after match that age is just a number when it comes to talent and cricketing acumen. From conjuring victories out of improbable situations to easing past opponents with consummate ease, Chennai Super Kings have brushed away the two-year absence to make their way into yet another IPL finals, their seventh appearance in the title clash. Retracing the path of the CSK side brings out one of the best stories of this year's IPL.
It all started on 7 April, the opening match of the eleventh edition of the IPL, when CSK took on defending champions Mumbai Indians (MI) at the Wankhede stadium. The Rohit Sharma-led side were continuing from where they left off in 2017 and were sailing to an easy victory over Chennai who needed 47 off the last three with only two wickets in hand. But, one of the old-timers, Dwayne Bravo had other plans as his blitzkrieg ensured CSK made a resounding comeback to win the match with a ball to spare.
CSK's troubles were far from over as their first-ever home game in more than 1000 days was met with protests over the Cauvery river dispute and the off-field controversies overshadowed the famed last-over shenanigans of the Chennai side in their second match of this season. This time, it was England's Sam Billings who was the hero of the match as his quickfire half-century against Kolkata Knight Riders (KKR) provided the platform for Bravo and Ravindra Jadeja to chase down 202 with, once again, a ball to spare.
A perfect start to CSK's season faced its first pitfall when a rampaging Chris Gayle, making his debut for the Kings XI Punjab (KXIP) side, and some smart bowling effort ensured there was no last-over fanfare from Chennai as an injured Dhoni failed to take the team past the finish line despite his fighting knock of 79 not-out. Chennai faced its first loss of the season despite excellent batting effort from Dhoni, who reminded once again why he was one of the best-ever finishers in the limited-overs format.
After being at the wrong end of a close encounter in IPL 2018, the Super Kings side batted first for the first time this season and notched up a massive 204/5 courtesy a century from one other old workhorse of the Chennai side, Shane Watson. This was also the first match to be played in CSK's new home — Pune — after the home ground was shifted from Chennai to the Maharashtra city after protests in the Tamil Nadu capital.
The Chennai side found a new hero in their clash against Sunrisers Hyderabad (SRH) when Ambati Rayudu's 79 off just 37 balls took apart the famed bowling line-up boasting of names like Bhuvneshwar Kumar and Rashid Khan. This was also the match when Dhoni's confidence in the young Deepak Chahar resulted in rich dividends for the Chennai team as his figures of 4-1-15-3 ensured CSK just about managed to eke out a 4-run win. Another last-over finish and two more points to the CSK side that were now perched on the top of the table.
While CSK's batting grew from strength to strength, their bowling started to get a bit worrisome for the Chennai think-tank. In the match against Royal Challengers Bangalore (RCB), CSK's wayward bowling allowed Virat Kohli and Co to set up a 206-run target. While this was the second 200-plus total against Chennai this season, it was also the second 200-plus run chase by CSK in IPL 2018. Rayudu and Dhoni launched a barrage of sixes as they ended up with yet another last-over finish and ten points from six games.
In CSK's first reverse-fixture match, Dhoni and Co faced a tame defeat to the Mumbai side as Rohit lead his team to a convincing eight-wicket victory over the Chennai side who had posted a sub-par total of 169. Dhoni, who called this a humbling loss, spoke about how the Chennai side had more or less relied on individual performances that somehow didn't come together in this game.
However, the Super Kings were immediately back on track as the star-studded batting line-up amassed yet another 200-plus total. It was an all-round effort from the CSK batters as Watson, Dhoni and Rayudu put up an above-par total at Pune against Delhi Daredevils (DD). The Daredevils fell 13 runs short as Rishabh Pant and Vijay Shankar almost took the game away from the Chennai side. This was the first time that Dhoni openly identified death bowling as a major concern for the Chennai side.
While the Super Kings were close to sealing a playoff spot, the insipid performance of their trump card, Jadeja, was becoming a worrying factor. Jadeja's performance against KKR left a lot to be desired as the southpaw's poor showing with the bat started affecting his bowling and fielding as well. KKR's clinical six-wicket win over the CSK laid bare the futility of keeping him in the side.
With 12 points from nine matches, there was no doubt in CSK being a champion side and to reiterate the oft-repeated jargon that a team is only as good as its players, the Chennai side found a cricketer who regained his spot under the limelight. In the match against RCB, the widely-criticised Jadeja became a different beast altogether as he returned with figures of 4-0-18-3, picking up the wickets of Kohli, Parthiv Patel and Mandeep Singh to restrict Bangalore to a paltry 127. Chennai won the match by six wickets as Jadeja picked up his first man-of-the-match award this season.
The happiness about the improvement in CSK's bowling effort didn't last long as the death overs conundrum reared its ugly head once again as Rajasthan Royals chased down 176 with four wickets in hand. CSK leaked 55 runs in the last five overs and Dhoni minced no words in giving a dressing down to his bowlers. The other teams were peaking at the right moment and were breathing down CSK's neck as the race to the playoffs got tighter.
Among the many heroes for Chennai Super Kings in this year's IPL, if there was any one standout player, it would clearly be Rayudu, who smashed his maiden T20 century to guide his team to a brilliant eight-wicket win over SRH. With this win, CSK became the only team in this edition of the IPL to beat the Kane Williamson-led side twice and collected 16 points to stay second on the points table.
The see-saw fortunes of the CSK side in the second half of the tournament continued as the convincing victory over SRH was followed by a crushing loss to DD. Chennai's inconsistent bowling managed to pull the side down again as Delhi stitched up an unbroken 65-run partnership for the sixth wicket to reach 162 at the end of 20 overs. Bravo's disappointing run with the ball continued as he went for 26 runs off his last over. The strong CSK batting line-up came a cropper against the Delhi spinners who restricted the flamboyant batsmen to end with a 34-run victory.
With other results going their way, Chennai Super Kings were guaranteed a place in the playoffs and were looking to seal a place in the top two when they faced off against KXIP in their last group-stage match. Lungi Ngidi stamped his class with figures of 4-1-10-4 as Chennai restricted KXIP to 153 and managed to chase it down with relative ease as they ensured CSK would have two chances to reach the IPL final.
In the Qualifier 1 at Wankhede, facing a team that CSK defeated twice in the group stages, the scales were tilted slightly in favour of the two-time champions. However, SRH managed to overcome a sluggish start to post a challenging 139 runs on the board. The SRH bowling almost pulled off a calculative defence, but their party was spoiled by the ability of the CSK side to unearth one hero after the other. Faf du Plessis produced a masterclass in chasing as CSK overcame the target with two wickets in hand and five balls to spare.
With that victory, CSK became the first team to qualify for the IPL 2018 final and will meet the Sunrisers once again after the 2016 champions beat KKR in the Qualifier 2 to set up a rematch on 27 May at the Wankhede stadium.
Looking back at the present edition of the IPL, it is clear that the single biggest takeaway would be the resurgence of the Chennai side that reclaimed its rightful position as one of the all-time great teams to have played in the Indian Premier League. Despite the two-year ban, protests in Chennai, shifting of the home venue, injury woes, gamble of experience over youth and unflattering bowling performances, CSK have entered a record seventh final in the Indian Premier League.
There is no sports team in the world that hasn't seen its share of unprecedented downfalls and unexpected comebacks. In 'Rocky Balboa', one of the sequels to the Oscar-winning Sylvester Stallone movie, 'Rocky', the ageing boxer gives an all-important advice to his son, "It ain’t about how hard you hit. It’s about how hard you can get hit and keep moving forward. How much you can take and keep moving forward. That’s how winning is done!”
Irrespective of the result of the match between Chennai Super Kings and Sunrisers Hyderabad on Sunday, if there is one story from IPL 2018 that will be retold for years to come, it would be the story of how a motley group of players lead by a maverick captain taught the world two important lessons — age is just a number and how form is temporary but class is truly permanent.