Another game without MS Dhoni, another comprehensive loss for Chennai Super Kings (CSK). It's a precarious situation for a team when one player is half the team. On the field, it was a slightly improved performance by the Men in Yellow under Suresh Raina when you compare it to the hammering they got at Hyderabad. But this time, they were playing at their fort at home, and the bowlers needed minimal hand holding on a pitch where the set plans have worked perfectly for them all through the season. Unfortunately, the same can't be said about their batting.
Barring Shane Watson and Faf du Plessis in a few games, and Dhoni in almost every other game, CSK batting has been abysmal this season. Suresh Raina was spot on at the presentation ceremony last night when he said the batting unit needs to take up more responsibility for the team. The one man who needs to step up and lead by example in this regard is Chennai vice-captain Raina himself.
Raina is one of the most prolific IPL batsmen of all time. He has made that number three spot his own over the years and has single-handedly guided his team to victory on several occasions. In IPL, Raina’s reputation was such that you always knew he steps up whenever the situation demanded. It's the reason why he was the second player retained by the franchise in 2018. They showed this faith because of his reliable service to the team over the years despite not being a regular in the international team for a long time.
Last year, Raina repaid the faith by being CSK's Mr Consistent. While Watson and Rayudu played the big innings in 2018, Raina was the anchor around which the team's success was built. His average of 37 and strike rate of 132 in 2018 summarise his impressive show. In 2019, his returns have dwindled in a significant way. In 12 games, his batting average is a paltry 22 and his strike rate a mere 120. In terms of numbers, these are the lowest return for Raina in the history of IPL.
The only inning of worth Raina played this season was his 58 against Kolkata. It was significant not only because it was the only time he crossed fifty this season, but also because he was there at the end to see his team home in a chase. In the last game, even though he made a useful 38 against Hyderabad, and gave his team some much-needed impetus their chase, he got out at a critical time in the game. If Shane Watson hadn't capitalised on his start, Raina's dismissal could have triggered the collapse that would ultimately cost the game.
Number 3 is the glue that connects your top order to the middle order. In any form of the game, your number 3 is the most reliable batsman in the team. When Raina fails at that critical position for Chennai, it exposes a soft underbelly for the opponents to aim for. As it happened against Mumbai last night and Bangalore two games ago, CSK often finds themselves at three down for nothing on the board inside the Powerplay. From there, the team is always playing catch up. The genius of Dhoni often takes them out of danger and guides them home, but if firefighting is your routine exit strategy then someday you will get burnt.
It's not just the runs that are missing for Raina, his usual finesse has deserted him as well. He was never scared to heave across the line even early on in his innings but now that seems to be his go-to shot every time he finds himself cornered. Missing are those elegant inside out drives over the cover and that nimble footed counterattack against the spinners. Raina is not just scoring fewer runs; he also has to play lower percentage shots to get them.
What hurts the team, even more, is the fact that Suresh Raina is in a leadership position in this team. As Dhoni's vice-captain and his proxy when the de facto leader is not playing, Raina needs to be at the top of his game to make the right decisions for the team. He also needs to command the respect of the dressing room through his performances.
When you aren't performing, yet leading the team, you tend to go in a downward spiral in every way. It shows when Raina, considered one of the best fielders of all time, starts misfielding and dropping chances routinely. It shows when he appears unfit to run hard. We saw it with Ajinkya Rahane for Rajasthan Royals how lack of runs was affecting his captaincy and vice versa. Freed of the responsibilities of leading the team, Rahane has looked like a different player in the latter half of this season.
Perhaps, CSK need to consider something similar to what Rajasthan Royals did. With all the experience in that dressing room, it shouldn't be hard for them to select another vice-captain for the team. Dwayne Bravo, Faf du Plessis, Shane Watson have all led international teams in the past and imbibe the spirit of CSK to take them forward in Dhoni's shadow.
Raina needs to find his batting form away from the limelight. He is too good a player to be dropped from the side. CSK may consider batting him down the order for a few games at number four or five to let him play with more freedom and give another player a crack at the number three position. Despite still being the table toppers, CSK need a fit-again Raina to provide themselves with the best chance of keeping the IPL trophy at Chepauk.