How do you follow up on happily ever after? The fairytale return of Chennai Super Kings to win the IPL 2018 title was always going to be a hard act to follow. Severely dented by preseason injuries and poor form, the team had an even more remarkable run this year. However, sequels are never as good as the original. CSK's season ended in heartbreak as they lost by one run in the final against archrivals Mumbai Indians.
Dhoni was brutally honest in summarizing the season in the final's presentation ceremony. He admitted openly to the team's flaws. Despite making it to the final, he was well aware of the fact that the shiny CSK wagon that had the aura of an unstoppable juggernaut was from inside a heavily patched vintage car that was running on fumes.
The season began with Dhoni looking almost annoyed after the team's first win in the opening game against RCB. He was happy to take the win but seemed irritated over the nature of the pitch that was laid out for them at home. A slow turning track that resembled a fourth day Test match pitch was never going to give his batsmen the freedom to express themselves. The unforgiving IPL schedule doesn't allow batsmen to work on their flaws and find form in the nets. You have to find it in the middle, but with the Chennai pitch playing as it did, the batsmen in yellow would struggle the entire season to find any consistency.
The batting load was carried almost entirely by Dhoni, who even by his lofty standards, had a breakaway year in the league. There were question marks over his ability to win games single-handedly before the start of the season. Critics felt that Dhoni could only perform the supporting act or play the anchor for CSK and someone else would have to deliver the knockout punch from the other end.
Dhoni has always possessed one of the sharpest cricket brains going around. His ability to read his opponents and the game situation has set him in a class of his own over the years. Over the last two years, we have seen him take his already unmatched standard to another level. Perhaps the break he took from leading the national team allowed him to sit back and observe the curve of the game as a student from close quarters. It's hard to learn new tricks when you are always worried about your next move. Dhoni 2.0 is sharper, more adventurous, and more ruthless. At the same time, he is more relaxed about his game and that of his team.
With the pitches not being conducive to strokeplay, bowlers had to put their team in winning conditions. In the field, Dhoni allowed the bowlers to go for wickets all the time. Perhaps, this was necessitated by his awareness of the flaws in his batting unit. He wanted his bowlers to restrict the opposition to below par scores every time, and this could only happen if they pick wickets at regular intervals.
On the whole, bowling was CSK's stronger fort. Led by Imran Tahir, and backed by Harbhajan Singh, Ravindra Jadeja, Deepak Chahar and Dwayne Bravo, it wasn't the kind of bowling attack that oppositions would lose sleep over the night before a game. However, with astute planning, and Dhoni's on-field instincts, they delivered consistently. Tahir, in particular, was Dhoni's man for all occcassions. He set the record for most wickets by a spinner in a single year.
Tahir always bowled with a big heart and showed a willingness to get hit for runs while bargaining for wickets. Apart from Dhoni, he is one player who epitomizes the professionalism that has defined CSK over the years, and at forty years of age, plays the game with a kind of infectious passion that would put teenagers to shame.
While accepting the IPL title in 2018, Dhoni said the real test for his team would come when some of the critical players aren't around. We got a glimpse of that this season when Dhoni was rested for two games, and the team looked clueless on the field in his absence. Some of the batsmen this year appeared past their prime and come 2020 may already be past their sell-by date.
CSK have always counted upon its strong Indian core. This year, they played a few games with just three overseas players instead of the customary four that every team chooses by default. However, the team faces a severe shortage of young Indian talent. Delhi Capitals showed the value of banking on a young group of cricketers this season and would only get better in 2020. CSK, on the other hand, may start to see diminishing returns from its ageing core of Dhoni, Suresh Raina, Ambati Rayudu, Shane Watson, Bravo, and Tahir.
The narrow loss in 2019 final is a bitter pill to swallow, and the team would take some time to recover from it. However, the team management needs to put the loss behind themselves as soon as possible and spend all the time they have from now till the beginning of the 2020 season in rebuilding.
Scout local leagues, trade with other teams, train your existing lot of domestic players, do whatever it takes to put a younger, and fitter unit on the field next year. A team that has the same level of skills as the ageing pros, and under Dhoni, would still imbibe the same team spirit. Also, don't listen to speculations over this being Dhoni's last IPL. The CSK team management and fans won't let go of him so soon!