We already know 2020 is an unpleasant year. Only, we found it a little too late sometime in March. We could have realised it earlier, if the current Indian Premier League season had begun in January. If we knew then that Chennai Super Kings would lose four out of their first six matches, we could have heeded 2020’s warning much earlier.
Chennai’s current predicament is closely linked to whatever has transpired this year. Two important players are missing – Harbhajan Singh didn’t even take off for the UAE and Suresh Raina returned even before you could finish spelling quarantine. Even before a ball was bowled, Chennai’s team balance was hit for a six. Then, there were the COVID positive cases, which denied their squad a chance to get out for practice, instead shacking them up for a further week.
It is important to consider these two factors, for they have had a telling impact on Chennai’s fortunes. This franchise is rigid about its team structure, evident from the fact that they didn’t name replacements for Raina and Singh. They have a definitive cricketing mentality, and not everyone can fit into their scheme of things. Then there is the age thing.
A group of elderly batsmen – Shane Watson is retired and only plays the odd T20 league; Ambati Rayudu and Raina are inactive cricketers, Kedar Jadhav hadn’t played for six months, MS Dhoni hadn’t played for 15 months, and Faf du Plessis last played in March. It is no surprise that it took them so long to get up to speed, and they are still not upto the mark, yet.
Three weeks into the 2020 IPL season, why is this relevant? Just look back at their 10-run loss to Kolkata Knight Riders on Wednesday night, and the aforementioned reasoning comes into focus. Yes, their top-order is scoring again, but it has taken five matches for Watson to get going, even if he has scored back-to-back half-centuries. Rayudu struggled with fitness, and now fighting for form again, while du Plessis can only do so much all alone. In a batting line-up struggling for a semblance of balance, all of it then comes down to the middle-order batsmen, and Chennai’s have failed five out of six times they have batted.
Chasing 158, Chennai were placed at 101-3 in 13.1 overs when Watson fell. 57 more runs were needed off 41 balls – that is a doable equation in any T20 cricket across the world. Yet, Chennai failed, and only because Kolkata recognised their weakness and went for the jugular. An over earlier, Dhoni had arrived at the crease after Rayudu holed out, and spin came on. Sunil Narine and Varun Chakravarthy sent down the next four overs, conceding only 28 runs whilst dismissing Dhoni.
The calculation had paid off – Dhoni isn’t the batsman of old, hell, he isn’t even the batsman of 2019 any longer. He needs a lot of time to get going, if he does at all, and starting off against spin is simply a hard yard. All teams have seen this by now, and Kolkata put it into practice as he made 11 off 12 balls.
Kolkata returned 41/3 runs off 36 balls from overs 14-19 as the game turned. Sending Kedar Jadhav at Dhoni’s exit was a wrong move, to begin with. It should have been Ravindra Jadeja instead, someone who can hit big. But the question to ask isn’t why Jadeja was held back. Instead, the question is what is Jadhav even doing in Chennai’s playing eleven?
Simply put, Jadhav is riding his luck and gaining from Raina’s absence. You can only pick four overseas players, and Chennai have always been dependent on a primary Indian batsman to carry them. Raina did that job for 12 years, but the one time he is absent, Jadhav cannot even manage to hit the ball off the square. It piles more pressure on Dhoni, and yes, that is possible in 2020. It could be seen in how Dhoni promoted himself and Sam Curran above both Jadhav and Jadeja, yet the move failed.
The Knight Riders tried this move too and were marginally successful, at least in comparison. Sunil Narine didn’t open, but was used as a floater coming in at number four. He only managed 17 off nine balls, which is no degree of success, but it underlines the confidence going in the Kolkata camp. They saw Narine wasn’t scoring at the top and instead of continuing to waste the opener’s slot, they promoted Rahul Tripathi, who scored 31 more than any other batsman in the contest.
Tripathi’s promotion made sense. It was an adventurous gambit, despite Shubman Gill and Nitish Rana being batsmen of the same mould. And it showed that the team management is not averse to making changes when the need arises. It wasn’t the first time in five games either, as they seek to find an ideal balance in their first-choice eleven.
Kolkata are going through an intriguing phase of their IPL 2020 journey. It is as if they are discovering a new facet to their game with every outing, whether it is a set top-order plan, a floating middle order, and/or a young, India-centric bowling attack bolstered by Narine-Pat Cummins that finds ample penetration. Add to it an adventurous but shrewd captain, and the equation could yet yield results in the long run. Let it be said here this was a game Kolkata shouldn’t have won. That they did was pretty much down to Karthik’s smart gamble with spin, which paid off against Chennai’s middle-order woes.
Where does this leave Dhoni’s beleaguered team? The win against Kings XI Punjab gave them two very vital points, and coupled with other results in their favour, the Super Kings were propelled up the table. Things could easily change again within the next week, when they will have played two more matches. Given that they have a shrewd team management at the helm, Chennai probably have figured by now that they will only scrape through to the knockouts if at all. It means they will not go on a winning run, accumulating 16-18 points, rather they will need to reach 12-14 whilst fighting for every point on offer.
Calculations then will be focussed on what Chennai are doing best. Their bowling, for one, has undergone a sea change ever since Dwayne Bravo returned to the line-up. Three pacers and two spinners became the watchword and over the last two games, Chennai have managed to strangle the opposition scoring, helped by vast improvements in the field.
Manning the death overs, Bravo gives them a lot of balance and Chennai’s playing eleven has always been anchored on that word. It is the sole reason they deploy three all-rounders in Bravo, Jadeja, and Sam Curran, the latter proving to be their MVP thus far in the season purely in terms of form and utility.
Curran is an honest trier, whether with bat or ball, and he provides different options to Dhoni depending on the situation. On Wednesday night, he opened the bowling and batted at number five, above Jadhav, Bravo, and Jadeja. It almost paid off, suggesting that Chennai need to use their resources better if they want to harbour hopes of keeping their qualification record intact.
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