How often do you see the winning captain being critical of the pitch? The opening match of IPL was one of those occasions. At the post-match interviews, Virat Kohli said he was just happy to get a game like this out of the way. MS Dhoni didn't show any obvious delight in winning the first game of the season and reckoned the wicket needs to be better than it is now.
It would appear that winning and losing on a night like this was decided by a lottery. Luck undoubtedly played a part in the final result, but the winning captain made part of that luck, and the losing captain was responsible for part of his misfortune.
In a low scoring game where both teams are struggling to grab an inch, a minor tactical oversight can cost you the game. MS Dhoni was on the button with his every move. He read the pitch correctly and played an extra spinner. So sure was he of his winning combination that he played only three overseas players in the IPL opener.
Harbhajan Singh is quite used to bowling with the new ball in T20s. Dhoni may have picked Harbhajan in the squad with this specific role in mind. But no one would have expected what followed. Harbhajan has played over two decades of international cricket and has claimed many prized wickets in that period, but picking Virat Kohli and AB de Villiers in the same spell is still something he would proudly brag about to his grandchildren in future.
Harbhajan didn't try anything fancy in his opening spell. He kept it straight and let the pitch do the rest. He lured both Kohli and de Villiers into playing the pull shot, a risky one on a wicket that is stopping. Dhoni and Harbhajan must have planned for this mode of dismissal. That's why they had the best fielder in the side, Ravindra Jadeja, patrolling the mid-wicket boundary.
RCB batting line up is always top heavy. If you pick Virat and ABD early, you have won half the battle. Dhoni kept up the pressure with his nifty bowling changes. CSK spinners bowled at the right pace for the Chennai track and looked like picking a wicket every ball. On a pitch that resembled a fifth-day rank turner, Dhoni was never going back to his seam bowlers with the kind of spin bowling resources at his disposal.
When RCB managed to negotiate the pitch, Dhoni was spot on with his reviews, like he usually is, to pile on the misery. Only Parthiv Patel showed some resistance with a stubborn 29. He was finally dismissed when Dhoni reintroduced a seamer into the attack, perishing to a Dwayne Bravo slower delivery.
A target of 70 was never going to be enough, especially against an experienced CSK batting line up. RCB showed some fight as Yuzvendra Chahal started with a maiden and then dismissed Shane Watson off the first ball of his second over.
At the other end, Navdeep Saini bowled with lively pace, but one wondered if Kohli was missing a trick by not bowling Umesh Yadav, who could have attacked the stumps a bit more. Umesh was the lone bright spot last season for RCB and had routinely picked wickets in his opening burst. Even someone like Colin de Grandhomme could have been a useful option with his lack of pace on this pitch, but he was never tried.
Kohli's field placements didn't inspire much confidence either. He could have given Chahal a few more catching men once he was aware that the batsmen are just looking to play him out. Chahal bowled his four overs for six runs but could pick only one wicket. Even Navdeep Saini could have bowled with a short leg or a leg slip to put that element of doubt in Suresh Raina's mind.
Kohli may not have fancied his team to win the game after not putting up a competitive total, but he could have gone down firing by picking a few more wickets and giving a boost to the team morale. In hindsight, he must be kicking himself for not playing another specialist spinner on this track as Dhoni did.
While RCB's spin bowling options were scarce, CSK's top order of Rayudu, Raina and Jadhav also showed a much better technique to negotiate the demons in the MA Chidambaram pitch. They were more decisive with their footwork and patient with their shot selection. Being aware of the fact that they were only chasing a target of 70 helped as well.
It's still early days, but the Dhoni factor has already made an impact on the season. Dhoni thrives in these compressed tournaments where teams have to hastily put together team over a short period of time. He is a master at making the best use of his resources and empowering the right player to do the job for the team.
Virat Kohli tactics on the day left a lot to be desired. You never count out a champion like Kohli, but it seems RCB could have offered him a break from captaincy this season given his hectic schedule leading into the tournament and the burden of the upcoming World Cup playing on his mind. Kohli had talked about managing fast bowler's workload this season, but even mental fatigue for captain could hurt Team India's chances. It will be interesting to see if Kohli considers the option of playing only as a batsman later in the season.