There is a particular moment that stands out from Wednesday’s top-of-the-table IPL clash between Chennai Super Kings and Delhi Capitals in Chepauk. The visitors were struggling at 85-7, when Shreyas Iyer was dismissed off Ravindra Jadeja, out stumped.
As he played and missed the line, Iyer’s back foot lifted off the ground for the slightest moment and MS Dhoni used that split second to take the bails off. The square leg umpire went up, obviously, and Iyer was adjudged out. Dhoni then looked at Shane Watson, and the two exchanged a knowing smile.
That stumping and smile were a micro representation of how Delhi Capitals were outplayed in a game of machismo right at the business end of this IPL season. Chennai Super Kings are not new to this game – they may have old legs but they understand how to play any situation. Whether starting slowly, picking up the pace in middle overs, and then smacking everything out of the park, or preparing spin-friendly pitches to trip up the opposition batting line-up, Chennai know how to do it well at their home ground.
Delhi’s start was good with both bat and ball, but they quickly lost their way. The differentiation was clear in the sense that Chennai manoeuvred proceedings at will. In cricketing terms, this was a stamping of class – only it was an expression by the whole side rather than just an individual.
It plays out across the two line-ups, in how they responded to the conditions at hand. Despite a slow start, Faf du Plessis and Suresh Raina made up for the lost time. Delhi had done well in the initial overs, but a change of pace halfway through the powerplay started affecting their plans. This is representative of the fact that the Delhi Capitals love to play on good, true surfaces, but tend to struggle whenever they encounter a slow pitch.
The big difference between the two line-ups thus was the experience. Despite only just recovering from sickness, Dhoni decided to promote himself to number four. It was an obvious read on the situation, playing the ball carefully through the middle overs before letting loose at the very end. And this plan worked almost to perfection. It was as if Delhi Capitals didn’t know how to counter it. Did they not expect Dhoni to play the game? Were they even prepared for this eventuality?
Through this season, Delhi have relied on one batsman to showcase his seniority and to an extent, Shikhar Dhawan did the same on Wednesday. 19 off 13 balls wasn’t the most free-flowing knock, but for the time he was at the crease, Delhi looked to be in control of the situation. It even allowed Iyer to bat time in the middle and their partnership spruced up the score, only for it to all fall apart.
This is the crux of the matter. Delhi’s batting strategy is flawed in the sense that they have expected the likes of Iyer, Prithvi Shaw and Rishabh Pant to bat around Dhawan, while growing in stature at the same time. And this process – or expectation rather – is taking longer than they perhaps first thought.
Pause here, and recall the impact of these young batsmen over this season. Shaw and Pant have had a couple of innings each that have turned the game, and the remainder of the time, their form has wildly oscillated from impactful to inconsistent. Pant’s disappointment at missing out on the World Cup was clear in the previous games, but this time around, the same inconsistency came through. Big-hit followed by dismissal, and game over – it was almost as if Chennai were using a set template against him.
The onus, as in such a scenario, then was on Dhawan and Iyer to keep the momentum flowing on a slow track. That they both fell to spin on a slow, turning track was no surprise. It has huge ramifications for Delhi Capitals going ahead though.
Make no mistake, this was their one shot at standing on the firm ground against other teams in the fray that have previously won the IPL on multiple occasions. Along with Chennai, both Mumbai Indians and Sunrisers Hyderabad are past winners and know well how to proceed from this stage of the competition. Kolkata Knight Riders, the other team in contention, are twice winners too.
Delhi – as a young team – turned over a new page in their IPL history after qualifying for the knockouts for the first time since 2012. It bodes well for their youth-first policy, interspersed with experience, and yet the work isn’t finished. Skipper Iyer said last week that Delhi consider themselves perennial underdogs and this is how they approach every game. It is high time they used this opportunity to make an alternative stand in the knockouts.
As things stand, they are still in control of finishing second in the points’ table. It would give them another opportunity to face up with Chennai Super Kings in the first qualifier. But would they want to play at Chennai and overcome their worst fear of facing a slow turner again? Or would they rather finish third/fourth, play on a better wicket at Vizag, and take the easier route to the final at Hyderabad?
That last bit is an assumption, but if Delhi Capitals do end up traversing this path, it would tell us that their season’s achievements have been no fluke.