When Sunrisers Hyderabad met Chennai Super Kings at home last night, the form guide would have marked Chennai Super Kings as the overwhelming favourites. Chennai had defeated Hyderabad in all four of their previous encounters. They were on a two-match winning streak away from home and a four-match winning streak overall, while the hosts had lost their last three games.
When Raina came out to spin the coin, all those previous numbers became irrelevant. Dhoni was missing a game for Chennai Super Kings. The last time that happened was way back in 2010. With his leadership and crisis management, Dhoni is half the Chennai team. If Dhoni is not leading them, it's worth questioning whether the unit that took the field qualifies as legit CSK.
Raina won the toss and decided to bat first on a pitch that was supposed to get slower as the match progressed. The in-form Faf du Plessis and off colour Shane Watson started cautiously against some accurate powerplay bowling from Bhuvneshwar Kumar and Khaleel Ahmed scoring at less than four runs per over till the fourth over. On a pitch that was going to get slower by their own calculations, they probably wasted the new ball by not being a bit more adventurous.
Once settled, Faf started taking a few more risks especially against Shahbaz Nadeem and the run rate was touching eight an over in no time. Perhaps the experienced Chennai batting line up was going to make up for Dhoni's absence. But this is when it all started to go wrong.
Watson's susceptibility against left-arm spin and his poor form led to his wicket when he misjudged the length of a loopy length delivery from Nadeem and lost his off stump. Vijay Shankar's disciplined line and length got rewarded in the next over when he dismissed du Plessis.
With both openers lost but the run rate still healthy, CSK would typically look to consolidate in the middle overs and make sure they lose no wickets. More so, when a certain Rashid Khan, the king of T20 bowling, is going to control those middle overs.
In some conditions, teams look to keep accelerating throughout their innings in a T20 match. But the pitches this year have been on the slower side, and that has meant that the teams that keep wickets in hand in the death overs are usually posting those healthy, match-winning totals.
Despite guiding their team to a win in their last game, Raina came out and looked scratchy right from the beginning. A Dhoni in the middle might have asked him to calm down and play a few deliveries to settle his nerves. But Raina went for a careless heave against Rashid and was caught in front. From this point onwards, things continuously went downhill for Chennai.
Rashid claimed Kedar Jadhav in the same over. Khaleel showed his variety in the next over by coming round the wicket and setting Sam Billings up with a quick bumper first up before getting him with an off-cutter that gripped on the pitch. With five overs to go, Chennai had lost half their side.
This is precisely how they controlled the innings in their last encounter against KKR when Dhoni was marshalling the troops in the field. They got rid of the danger men to allow the death bowlers some leverage. Now their batsmen were faced with the same situation. Jadeja and Rayudu tried to throw their bats around but only managed 30 in the last five overs setting a well below par target of 133 to win for the hosts.
The situation demanded CSK to be creative and proactive in the field. Before this match, 66 percent of the runs for Sunrisers Hyderabad had come off the bats of their openers Warner and Bairstow. If you send back the openers, you can build pressure on their non-existent middle order, and still pull off a surprise win.
Chennai were careless not just with the bat, but they were listless in the field too. Chahar and Shardul just went through the motions without any planning against two of the most destructive opening batsmen in the world at the moment. There were no attempts to create a set play against Warner. Shardul had a good game against Kolkata Knight Riders where he bowled with discipline, but here he was serving a full toss one ball and a short and wide 'help yourself' delivery the next. Yes, it's not easy to contain David Warner, but they way Chahar and Shardul bowled too short or too full on both sides of the wickets, any opening batsmen in the world would have served them similar punishment.
A Harbhajan Singh might have been useful with the new ball against the big-hitting left-hander, but he has been curiously missing from this setup despite match-winning performances with the ball in two games. Still, Raina could have tried to change the pace and introduce a spinner early against the two openers who enjoy pace off the pitch.
The least you would expect from a side that is full of experienced campaigners including du Plessis and captain Raina himself is to go out and have a word with the rookie seamers when they were getting carved around. No one moved from his fielding position though. It appeared that the plan was to take a swift blow and head back to the safety of Chepauk as soon as possible.
Only Imran Tahir showed some professional pride and bowled a miserly spell picking two wickets. But bowlers like 40-year-old Tahir who have played cricket around the world don't need too much in the form of guidance, others do, and it never came.
In tennis, players sometimes concede a game or a set without putting any real effort to win it. It's known as tanking, and it can carry a penalty if you are found guilty of doing it. Chennai Super Kings approach on Wednesday night appeared very similar to tanking.
The appalling lack of leadership on the field also raised more significant existential questions for the most successful franchise in the IPL. There will inevitably be a time when Dhoni is not around in that dressing room. Is the team prepared to cope with such a scenario? It's something the team management needs to start addressing now with Dhoni still there to guide the future leadership of this team.
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