Chennai Super Kings rounded up the league stage of IPL with another clinical show that took them to the playoffs for the ninth time in as many seasons. Unlike in the previous editions of the league where they started slow and picked up momentum later, this year they started the season at the top of the table and stayed there pretty much throughout the season before being toppled right in the very last game by Mumbai Indians.
After bit of a stutter against Mumbai in the first qualifiers, CSK recovered in time to book a place in their eighth IPL final by beating the most improved team of the season, Delhi Capitals. In the finals, they are set to face Mumbai again hoping to register their first win of the season against the archrivals.
Chennai Super Kings is a fascinating sports team. On paper, they don't seem that impressive compared to some other star-studded units in IPL. A lot of their key players are past their prime. Players like Shane Watson, Harbhajan Singh, Suresh Raina are either retired from international cricket or have no hopes of playing international cricket again. Barring Ravindra Jadeja and Faf du Plessis, their fielding is slow and unathletic. Without Lungi Ngidi, the pace bowling attack is led by two young Indian rookies. But when you put these bits and pieces on the field in a yellow jersey under the careful watch of MS Dhoni, the sum of their parts creates an aura of invincibility.
With CSK and Dhoni, part of their winning secret is that aura. When Dhoni starts to play out deliveries even as the required run rate is creeping up towards 15 overs, the opposition captains begin to wonder if another Dhoni special is cooking. His two innings against Rajasthan Royals were a prime example of his ability to perform a rearguard recovery when all hope seemed lost. Perhaps the most scintillating Dhoni chase of this season came against Royal Challengers Bangalore at Chinnaswamy Stadium in a losing cause when needing 26 to win off the last over, Dhoni got 24 off 5 but somehow failed to deliver the winning blow.
When Dhoni wasn't winning impossible games with the bat, he was marshalling his limited resources in the field to get the best out of his bowlers. Imran Tahir was the pick of his bowlers this season. Tahir gave his team those crucial wickets in the middle overs that helped reduce the pressure in the death overs. The game against KKR where he picked four wickets in the middle overs including that of dangerous Russell was a great exhibition of aggressive leg spin bowling.
The way Dhoni went for wickets in the middle overs throughout the season set him apart from other captains. Last season, his team struggled to contain the opposition in the death overs. This year Dhoni decided to improve that by trying to get the most dangerous players out before the onset of slog overs. This is how he tamed Rishabh Pant in the second qualifier, and Andre Russell in the league game earlier in the season.
Harbhajan Singh was the surprise package of the season, especially at Chepauk. He was prepared to slow down his pace and bowl into the pitch to make use of variable bounce. His impeccable length was the reason he was so difficult to get away even in the powerplay overs. Away from home on flat wickets, batsmen can still line him up as KL Rahul showed in the final league of the season. Ravindra Jadeja, Deepak Chahar and Dwayne Bravo were Dhoni's line of defence. They made good plans on each pitch and stuck to their task for the most part.
Top order batting was the weak fort for CSK, and if it wasn't for Dhoni's brilliance, the poor returns of Watson, Raina, and Rayudu could have cost them a place in the playoffs. Raina's season improved towards the end of the league stage as he scored back to back 50s in the last two games. He has always been the big match player for CSK, and they will be hoping that he delivers one more time in the big final.
Kedar Jadhav and Ambati Rayudu both averaged under 20 for the season, which as India regulars, would count as a significant failure. Shane Watson was perhaps the biggest disappointment of the season and barring the game against SRH; he looked well below his peak form. His paltry returns were one of the main reasons CSK struggled in the powerplay overs throughout the season.
The openers came good in the second qualifier knocking off the chase almost entirely on their own. The intent that Faf showed in that game should be the template for how they will be looking to play on the night of the big final.
CSK's dependence on Dhoni's halo effect was visible in the two games where the captain didn't play. Without his leadership in the batting order, and on the field, the team seemed clueless. It also raised questions about the direction this team will take when Dhoni eventually decides to hang his boots. CSK is a team built in Dhoni's shadow. The team management often talks about how they make plans as individuals and look to be spontaneous in the field. You need a zookeeper like Dhoni to manage that organized chaos of eleven different individual plans.
To defeat CSK, you have to break their aura first. As an opposition, you need to see them as another regular team with weaknesses to exploit. CSK's run at the top of IPL ladder since 2008 can be compared to the exploits of the West Indies team that didn't lose a series at home from 1980 to 1995. They were eventually defeated by an Australian team that was prepared to look beyond their aura of invincibility.
Glenn McGrath recalls in his autobiography how as a rookie he decided to bounce the mighty West Indian fast bowlers, something no team dared to do for decades fearing the consequences of facing an angry West Indian pace battery. Calling out the false bravado of a team that was on a downward ebb but refused to acknowledge or show it went a long way in ensuring its eventual defeat.
Similar to the Australian team of 1995, Mumbai Indians proved thrice over in this season that you can defeat CSK at their own game by building pressure in the field and coming hard at them with the bat. As CSK gear up for the final, they will face their most significant test of the season, possibly their biggest test across all seasons combined, against a team that has an antidote for all their tricks.
Mumbai Indians are known for their planning and preparation, but if you throw surprises at them, they sometimes fail to think on their feet and switch to a Plan B. Therein lies CSK's best chance of pulling off their first win of the seasons against the archrivals. They can look to attack the Mumbai spinners in the middle overs, perhaps by sending someone like Jadeja up the order. On the field, Dhoni can try and shuffle his bowlers around and keep them guessing. Perhaps most importantly, CSK need to find a way to defeat the beast in their batting order called Hardik Pandya. If he gets going again at Chepauk on Tuesday night, even the Dhoni effect may fail to pull his team through.