Death. Taxes. Chennai Super Kings in IPL final. The men in yellow are in their eighth IPL final out of ten editions. It's a staggering record in a hard-fought league where rules are designed to ensure teams stay evenly matched. But team spirit is something you can't put a cap on.
It hasn't been an easy road for CSK this year despite spending almost the entire season at the top of the points table. Their top order batting was in great form last year with at least one batsman firing in every game. In 2018, Rayudu, Watson, Raina and Dhoni all scored an aggregate of more than 400 runs with an average close to 40 or above.
This year only Dhoni has managed to score consistent runs and aggregate over 400 runs for the season. Bar the skipper and Faf du Plessis, the batting averages are hovering around 20. It was the batting that had let them down in the first qualifier against Mumbai Indians where they could score just 131 batting first. In a big knock out, against top teams, you can't hope to go too far without runs on the board.
Before the start of the second qualifier, the critics had started wondering how long can CSK go without a change of personnel. The biggest failure of the season was perhaps the opening pair, in particular, Shane Watson. After the previous loss, Dhoni had made it clear that these are the men they have backed all season to do the job, and they will have to deliver if the team has to win.
When Chennai bowled first, the pitch appeared a bit slow. By picking wickets at regular intervals, Dhoni managed to keep a lid on the scoring rate and managed to contain the strong Delhi batting line up to below 150.
When Faf du Plessis and Shane Watson came out to bat, they knew their task is to build partnerships. Dhoni had decided to play the extra bowler for this game, so the batsmen had to take additional responsibility. We saw some early signs of nerves in the very first over when a terrible mix up gave Delhi a chance to affect a run out at either end, but they somehow managed to fluff it up with their over-eagerness.
That missed run-out chance was all the luck this opening pair was going to need on the day. Shane Watson was still struggling to find the middle of the bat in the first couple of overs. The South African captain had the dual task of scoring some quick runs in the powerplay and handhold his partner across through a tough period.
CSK have been slightly guilty of letting the game drift in the powerplay without paying any attention to the scoring rate. In the third over, you could see Faf was trying to change that. In the T20 era, most bowlers prefer a stationary target to aim. If you move around in the crease or charge the bowlers, then suddenly they start to lose their line and length. That's how someone like David Warner manages first to upset the bowlers, and then capitalize on anything loose on offer. When Faf charged the first ball of Boult's over, the seeds of doubt were sown in bowler's mind. Later on in the over, perhaps anticipating the batsman to charge him again, Boult shortened his length allowing Faf to rock back and unleash a powerful pull shot to collect his first boundary of the day. The opening salvo was fired.
When spin was introduced, Faf knew it was another crucial moment of the game where he had to assert himself. Faf's grip on the bat and his stance is customized for hitting through the off side. Against Axar he made more room for himself to hit through the off side by shuffling slightly outside the leg stump and that allowed him to find the gap through covers for a boundary. Axar shortened his length the next ball to prevent the drive, but Faf was feeling it now. He extended his arms and used the extra pace of Axar to time the ball over the long off boundary. Shreyas Iyer has placed a fielder at the boundary precisely for that shot, but Faf didn't care. Another sign of the CSK opener deciding to assert himself on the game in the powerplay while taking some calculated risk.
In the final over of the powerplay, Faf used Ishant's short-ish length to his advantage on a slow wicket and pulled and guided the ball to pick three consecutive boundaries. CSK were finally getting the kind of start that was missing from their title defence this year. A couple of boundaries later, when Faf crossed his fifty, Watson was still on 18 showing the extent of Faf's domination in this partnership. But Watson had now spent close to ten overs at the crease and was started to find the middle of the bat. He celebrated his partner's landmark with his first six of the day against Axar.
When Faf got out in the next over, still looking to be aggressive against Trent Boult, DC got a slight opportunity to come back into the game. But the very next over, Watson picked 25 off Keemo Paul to shut the door on the young Delhi team. While giving an interview, later on, Watson thanked Faf profusely for carrying him through the tough period and allowing him to score only his third fifty of the season.
The return to form of CSK's top order is a welcome change for the team who had to find ways to win games without much support from top order for most of this season. Against a Mumbai team that has been hammering down on their weaknesses this season, they will have to collectively play their A-game to take home the trophy for the second consecutive year.