Roger Federer may be the best player in the world, but Rafael Nadal is the best player of Roger Federer. Sports writer Rohit Brijnath said this to me once, and I think about the line when I sit down to write about the rivalry between Chennai Super Kings and Mumbai Indians. Chennai are the most successful side in IPL history. No other team has made the Playoffs as often. No other team has played as many finals. This year too, they sit top of the table. But as of Friday (26 April), they have been beaten twice by Mumbai Indians this season, who have also beaten them twice before in IPL finals.
Mumbai storm the fort
Chennai have made Chepauk the bed of winning habits. They were on a 10 match winning streak at the venue between 2013 and 2015. Guess who ended that? Mumbai. Then CSK built another streak of eight consecutive wins, stretching back to 2015. MI have now ended that as well. CSK had a spotless record at home this season. Mumbai have blemished that too.
What is it about Mumbai that makes them a good travelling side when they visit Chennai? On this occasion, it was leadership, and the lack of it in the opposition. MS Dhoni missed the game, for various reasons depending on who you ask (Suresh Raina mentioned a fever, Mitchell Santner mentioned a sore back). And so Rohit Sharma held court, batting serenely at first and then savagely.
With two left handers in the top three, Rohit took more of the strike as Harbhajan bowled three overs in the Powerplay and four overs on the trot; after biding his time, Rohit collected two sixes off the former MI bowler in his last over. Once that threat was seen out, Rohit had to face the legspin of Imran Tahir, a master in the art that has dismissed Rohit a few times this season. And so Lewis took more of the strike initially. By the 16th over, a well-set Rohit carted Tahir for 15 runs. His eventual tally of 67 off 48 balls was by far the best individual batting performance of the match, with the next best being M Vijay’s scratchy 38. At one point, CricViz put his false shot percentage at just 11 percent, on a pitch where every other batter struggled to middle the ball consistently.
Pitch too Yellow
On one hand it seemed the perfect strategy to make the most of home advantage. CSK have played on slow, gripping pitches all season, and unleashed a spin heavy attack to terrorise visiting teams. Imran Tahir is the second highest wicket-taker in the tournament, and Ravindra Jadeja has been a fixture in the XI, interrogating batters with balls that sometimes spin, sometimes don’t. But Jadeja was missing from the CSK XI, also out due to a fever.
His replacement Mitchell Santner bowled beautifully, returning figures of 2 for 13 in four overs. The only problem was, his opposite number did better. Krunal Pandya took 2 for 7 in three overs, removing both Ambati Rayudu and Kedar Jadhav, crippling an already depleted CSK middle order. And this is probably why Dhoni has been critical of the Chepauk pitches all season, despite CSK being so successful there.
“I don’t think we should be playing on these tracks. It becomes too low scoring,” said the CSK skipper after a previous win. Coming from the master of saying a lot without saying much, perhaps what he was afraid of is creating conditions that make it difficult for his own batters to cope.
Home advantage in the IPL?
It raises an interesting question. Is such a slant in pitch conditions, favouring the home side, something that makes the IPL richer or poorer?
Imagine if pitches in all the venues accentuated their natural characteristics. Chennai and Delhi, being more suited to turn, would force teams to play three or more spinners. When in Mumbai, Kolkata or Mohali, teams can pack their sides with fast bowlers. In Jaipur, bowlers who can dig their cutters into the pitch might be more effective.
It could bring to life the tactical nuances within the IPL. Horses for courses could apply to batters as well; someone like Moeen Ali, an aggressive player of spin, would suddenly become hot property, while flat track-bullies would be weeded out. Yes, the audience wants to see fours and sixes, but balanced pitches make for close games, and close games make for better spectacle.
I’ve always been in favour of pitches that offer something to both bowlers and batters, and in this imaginary utopia, an away win would carry so much more value, as it would mean the visiting side defeated not just the home team and their fans, but also their conditions.
That is exactly what Mumbai ended up doing; they showed the League that Chepauk is not impenetrable, and that CSK’s home advantage is not absolute. They showed that, even when you lose the toss, you can still win as long as you play the conditions better. They showed that if teams are smart, CSK can be beaten at their own game.
Stats courtesy Sampath Bandarupalli on Twitter.