Last night saw a cracking contest between Chennai Super Kings (CSK) and Mumbai Indians (MI). From getting the batting order right to the change of personnel in the bowling attack, Mumbai did a lot of things right and were the deserving winners.
In previous seasons, the Chennai vs Mumbai game often set the tone for these two teams for the rest of the tournament. Last year, Mumbai could never quite recover from the loss in the season-opening thriller at home, and Chennai carried the belief from that win all the way to their title win. The defeat is no cause of worry for MS Dhoni's men yet, but they will do well to take the lessons learned at Wankhede into the rest of the season.
Tactically, Mumbai seemed one step ahead of Chennai throughout the contest. The Chennai camp was found wanting when most of their Plan As didn't come off. Dhoni is usually very proactive in reading the opposition plans and adapting his tactics, but even the best have their off days.
Batting first, Mumbai started setting a platform with Suryakumar Yadav anchoring the innings. The Mumbai lad played some delightful strokes against the fast bowlers at the start of his innings and forced Dhoni to remove Deepak Chahar from the attack. Chahar is usually Dhoni's banker at the top and bowls four overs on the trot with the new ball.
When the spinners came into the attack and started tying the batsmen in knots, Mumbai decided to promote Krunal Pandya instead of sending Kieron Pollard at number 5. Krunal got busy right away and built a good partnership with Yadav to lay a platform for the slog over specialists in their team. Dhoni tried different tricks to send Krunal back early, but the execution from his bowlers and especially his fielders was lacklustre.
Dhoni doesn't set high standards for his team in the field. He knows most of his fielders aren't athletic, and may risk an injury by diving around in the field. But Dhoni definitely expects his men to grab balls that are hit straight at them, something they failed to far too often on Wednesday night.
Kieron Pollard came into a situation where he had to start against pace, precisely what Mumbai wanted. Pollard tends to be a tentative against spin at the start of his innings. He started the onslaught in the death over with a few powerful hits over the fence. His partner at the other end has been in excellent hitting form, but he also fed off the confidence of seeing his partner hit them a mile.
With the pressure off, Hardik went berserk against Dwayne Bravo in the final over of the innings and helped Mumbai post a total that would challenge the experienced Chennai batting line up.
Chennai started in the worst possible fashion by losing Ambati Rayudu off the first ball of their innings. Rayudu isn't a specialist opener and hasn't shown the best technique to handle the moving ball on a hard pitch. Chennai might have played Faf du Plessis on a pitch that resembled something he would find back home in South Africa. Even if Rayudu was opening, he should not have taken the strike and let Watson, who has opened the batting all his career, take the first ball.
Chasing 170, Chennai desperately needed their top order to fire, but they were pegged back in the chase once both openers were dismissed early, and Raina perished to a sensational catch at the boundary line by Pollard. Dhoni joined Kedar Jadhav in the middle at the end of the powerplay and knew the innings needed a period of consolidation.
In familiar fashion, Dhoni started cautiously. Rohit sensed the opportunity and got away with four overs of spin cheaply. Rahul Chahar was playing his first game for Mumbai, and Chennai could have tried to put him under pressure, but the game situation demanded caution.
Against other teams, Dhoni's tactic of taking the game deep and delivering the knockout punch in the final over is generally the favoured option for Chennai. But they knew they were up against two of best death over bowlers the game has ever seen. Chennai allowed the required run rate to creep above 15, something they may be capable of achieving against another bowling attack, but against the class of Jasprit Bumrah and Lasith Malinga, it's next to impossible.
The situation demanded Chennai's middle order, including captain Dhoni, unleash a different plan to take Mumbai by surprise. Mumbai head coach, Mahela Jayawardene, was talking to Matthew Hayden on the sideline as Dhoni and Kedar Jadhav were batting in the middle overs. Like everyone else, he knew Dhoni would look to take the game deep and could plan his tactic based on that.
An essential element of T20 tactic is the element of surprise. In a compressed battle where a brief passage can do irreparable damage to your winning chances. As a fielding team, you often win games by bowling someone or by setting fields the opposition isn't prepared for. While batting, you sometimes have to surprise your opponent by changing the tempo of the game at a time when the opposition captain and bowlers aren't expecting it.
If Dhoni or Jadhav had decided to target one of Mumbai's bowlers in the middle overs, they would have given themselves a better chance in the chase. As it turned out, Mumbai executed their plans perfectly on the day and came out on top.