The 2020 edition of the Indian Premier League (IPL) was memorable for many reasons. The tournament was played in the midst of a deadly pandemic, away from the usual host country with all the matches taking place in the UAE.
Mumbai Indians broke the odd-year pattern and claimed the trophy for the fifth time. But most strikingly, Chennai Super Kings, the three-time winners, did not make it to the playoffs for the first time in their 11-year history. It was an underwhelming tournament for the MS Dhoni-led team as they finished second from the bottom, suffering eight defeats in the process.
A lot went wrong for the Chennai-based side last year but the new season brings new hope and a lot can go right for the team this time around. But keeping the historical factor and expectations aside, how can Dhoni realistically turn his team's fortunes around? Last season's performance certainly left a bad impression which persists as the team prepares for a new campaign. CSK did a decent job at the auction table and considering the squad, it's not enough to put them in the favourites bracket. Like always, CSK have international experience in their ranks but match-winners? Not with the ball but with the bat? We'll have to wait and find out.
Batsmen need to step up
CSK will play 10 league matches in Mumbai, Bangalore, and Kolkata. In the past, the venues have been batting friendly with not much help for spinners. With the tracks favouring batsmen, CSK will hope that they don't falter with their batting, as it happened in the previous season.
After a disappointing start in 2020, Dhoni minced no words in pointing out that batting was a big problem and they lacked 'power' in their middle-order. The absence of Suresh Raina, injury troubles of Ambati Rayudu, and the form issues with MS Dhoni and Kedar Jadhav proved to be too much for CSK's liking. Again, taking the venues into account, not sure if CSK has actually found power in the middle order for this season.
Of course, this can change if new recruit Moeen Ali doesn't open the batting. But it makes more sense for CSK to use Moeen as an opener. He showed in the past that he can open the batting and his ability to hit big shots (strike-rate of 158 in 19 IPL innings) will make for a good combination against right-hander Ruturaj Gaikwad, who ended last year's tournament with three back-to-back half-centuries. If Moeen goes up in the order then Faf du Plessis' chances of featuring in the playing XI reduces.
Coming back to the middle order, and this is where CSK's batsmen need to step up big time. The likes of Rayudu, Dhoni, Suresh Raina, and Ravindra Jadeja have come to the tournament without much game time. This set of players has loads of experience when it comes to playing in the IPL but recent form has to be taken into context. CSK can't afford a slow start because the competition is stiff and the onus is on Dhoni to get his combination right from the start.
Talking about Dhoni, it's not a secret anymore that his best years are gone. No doubt, he is an exceptional leader and a once-in-a generation finisher who led this team to three IPL titles, but last year was his worst when it came to batting and captaincy. His strike rate was 116, significantly lesser than his IPL career strike rate of 136. He averaged only 25 compared to his overall number of 40.99 in the IPL. He did not score a single half-century in 2020. Dhoni is not new to the under-the-pump situation and he might not agree or show it on his face but he'll be desperately hoping that his form and his plans will help in achieving positive results.
— Chennai Super Kings (@ChennaiIPL) April 4, 2021
This has to be Sam Curran's season. He was the team's best performer last season – 13 wickets in 13 innings and played two match-winning knocks with the bat. His versatility impressed many and earned him praise from Dhoni. In the recent limited-overs international series against India, the England all-rounder did not bowl much but he showed what he can do with the bat in the final ODI, where he played an exceptional knock which prompted Jos Buttler to compare him with his CSK skipper.
Dhoni will have to figure out how he uses his best talent in the upcoming season. Curran is expected to bowl the tough overs and also his hitting prowess makes him an ideal candidate as a finisher. The all-rounder's workload will increase massively in the coming weeks.
The breakthrough bowlers
Shardul Thakur's recent exploits against England will give him and CSK a lot of confidence. He was the highest wicket-taker in both ODIs and T20Is against England. He could go for runs but he has developed the knack of taking wickets in the middle overs with clever bowling.
Dwayne Bravo's fitness is an important factor and so far he looks to be in good shape. Bravo along with Curran, Shardul, and Deepak Chahar is likely to start the majority of the games and will aim to deliver with the ball when it matters.
Spin has been CSK's biggest strength in the past but just like last time, spinners may not play a big role this season. This is due to the kind of tracks which are expected in the venues they will play. Nevertheless, CSK have better options compared to their attack last season. Moeen and Krishnappa Gowtham offer them the services of off-spin while Mitch Santner and Imran Tahir could be used in rotation.
CSK Squad: MS Dhoni (C and WK), Suresh Raina, Ambati Rayudu, N Jagadeesan, Faf Du Plessis, Ruturaj Gaikwad, Sam Curran, Ravi Jadeja, Dwayne Bravo, Mitchell Santner, Shardul Thakur, Karn Sharma, KM Asif, Imran Tahir, R. Sai Kishore, Deepak Chahar, Lungi Ngidi, Moeen Ali, Krishnappa Gowtham, Harisankar Reddy, Bhagvath Varma and Cheteshwar Pujara
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