The Whistles, & The Wins Are Back: How CSK Turned Woes of 2020 Into Wow of 2021
MS Dhoni's Chennai Super Kings were the first team to seal a spot in the playoffs of IPL 2021.
Match 45, IPL 2020: CSK become the first team to go out of the playoffs race.
Match 44, IPL 2021: CSK become the first team to enter the playoffs.
They were, by their own admission, sparkless. They were, in their manner of approaching games, intentless. They were, to a degree, luckless. They were, quite undeniably, joyless.
In 2020, CSK found T20, Murphy and age catching up with them – and the IPL, for the first time, witnessed a top-four with no room for yellow.
Less than a year on, in this first-ever IPL season of two halves, ‘normal service’ has resumed: Chennai Super Kings will be back in the playoffs, after confirming a top-four finish in IPL 2021.
With 18 points and a net run rate vastly superior to every other team, CSK, in fact, are virtually assured of finishing in the top-two of the points table – which will allow the three-time champions and eight-time finalists the luxury of two cracks at making the IPL 2021 final.
But how did they go from woeful to wowsome? How did they bring the wins – and the whistles – back?
Accepting the Flaws – and Addressing Them
As the Super Kings prodded along to their annus horribilis, it was quite clear through IPL 2020 that they went about their hour of sporting grief in a state of denial; non-performing assets were persisted with needlessly, chases were abandoned before they barely began, COVID and COVID-related withdrawals played its own part… it was quite the sinking ship.
Denial is said to be the first stage of grief. Fortunately, in the months that followed, they quickly traversed their way to the final stage – acceptance.
There were, broadly, three glaring holes in the CSK setup during IPL 2020: the almost-absolute absence of intent in the middle-order, the absence of any off-spin bowling options, and a telling absence of pace in most of their pace-bowling options.
These were far too diverse a set of holes to be plugged all at once in one mini-auction, but that they had acknowledged the existence of said holes became quite clear in the opening half hour of the IPL 2021 auction. CSK went up to a figure of Rs 14 crore before giving up on their pursuit of Glenn Maxwell; minutes later, Moeen Ali’s name came out of the bag – and CSK went the distance this time, making the winning bid of Rs 7 crore.
What do Maxwell and Moeen have in common? Both are intent-laden batters; both bowl off-spin. They took their pursuit of bridging the off-spin gap further by shelling out Rs 9.25 crore to acquire Krishnappa Gowtham (although he is yet to get a game this season).
Right from the moment they completed Moeen’s purchase, it was clear he was going to hold the key to addressing the 2020 woes. More on that shortly.
Trusting the Spark, Empowering Others
One of the few bright sparks of IPL 2020 for CSK was Ruturaj Gaikwad, who finished the season by becoming the first uncapped batter to hit three successive half-centuries – which resulted in three victories that ensured CSK didn’t face the ignominy of a bottom-placed finish.
In the context of the season, it may have only been the difference between finishing seventh or eighth, but the impact of those three knocks lay more in the trust that it brought in favour of the young talent.
Gaikwad was given the confidence of his management, and the security of his spot – the latter, for any up-and-coming player, is the fiercest shot in the arm. The spark has lit up this IPL: 407 runs from 11 innings, averaging 40.70 and scoring at more than eight runs per over (at the end of match 44, Gaikwad was the fifth-highest run-getter for the season).
But Gaikwad’s impact on CSK’s campaign isn’t limited to just his own runs – the manner of his scoring has empowered the rest of the CSK batting order, none more so than Faf du Plessis.
The 24-year-old is a ‘safe’ starter; he’s scored 6.61 runs per over in the Powerplay, but lasted beyond the opening six overs in seven of the 11 games. The steadiness from one end has allowed Faf du Plessis to be more expressive at the start of the innings: the South African has increased his Powerplay scoring rate from 8.16 in IPL 2020 to 8.53 so far this season, and he, too, has stayed to see the middle overs in eight outings.
As a team, CSK have seen their Powerplay scoring rate rise from 7.13 to 7.53; more impressively, the Super Kings have seen their Powerplay average jump from 28.52 to 49.70.
With 599 partnership runs in 11 innings, Gaikwad-Du Plessis are the season’s top-performing opening pair. The CSK openers, on average, have added 54 runs off 40 balls every innings.
They’re starting their innings faster, while also losing fewer wickets – thereby enabling greater returns from the middle overs, too.
Slow Coach Gets an Injection of Intent
CSK were the second-slowest batting team in IPL 2020, with stuttering starts and muddled middle overs a constant in their campaign; the death overs were the only saving grace, down in large part to one of the season’s top-performing finishers, Ravindra Jadeja (182 runs off 85 balls).
In 2021, they’ve gone from being almost the worst to comfortably the best; CSK have maintained a scoring rate of 9.00 per over – after 44 matches, no other team has scored at more than 8.40 per over.
If the Powerplay has seen improved returns thanks to the work of their openers, the middle overs has received a direly-needed fillip through the four-pronged effort of Gaikwad, Du Plessis, Moeen Ali and Ambati Rayudu.
By scoring nearly nine runs per over in this phase, Moeen has adeptly served one of his two primary batting functions in the team – Rayudu, with a scoring rate of 8.58 in this phase, has been impressive too.
The other area that was in dire need of a turnaround was the way CSK batted against spin. The Super Kings’ top-four has addressed that spectacularly; Gaikwad, Du Plessis and Rayudu have all boosted their scoring against spinners, while Moeen – the fastest-scoring batter against spin in T20s since 2018 – has done what he was signed on to do.
Jadeja has continued to lead the way at the death (122 runs off 59 balls), with only AB de Villiers bettering his scoring rate among batters to face at least 50 balls in this phase this season. With Rayudu (61 off 29 balls), Dwayne Bravo (43 off 16 balls) and Sam Curran (46 off 23 balls) also making dents, the Super Kings are the best death overs batting unit by a distance – they’ve gone at 12.68 per over, while no other team has achieved a scoring rate of 11.
From being devoid of intent 12 months ago to now laced with it, this has been a remarkable recovery.
Shielding the Fading Demi-Gods
Noticed the absence of a couple of names, yet? Swallowing pride can be an essential part of any redemption effort.
For good or bad, Chennai Super Kings were never going to take the field without their ‘Thala’ and ‘Chinna Thala’ as long as they were available. Emotion: 10/10. Loyalty: 11/10. Brand value: 12/10. Cricketing logic? Not so much.
No one typified CSK’s struggles during IPL 2020 more than MS Dhoni. He scored less than seven runs per over despite batting largely in the second half of the innings, he managed less than six per over against spin, he mustered 200 runs – and only seven sixes – from 12 innings.
Then there was Suresh Raina, who opted out of the 2020 campaign, and had played a grand total of five matches between the end of IPL 2019 and the start of IPL 2021.
The rust reflects clearly from just a cursory glance at their returns this season.
In just the UAE leg alone, the sight of Raina hobbling in front of Trent Boult (far from the quickest bowler in the competition) and Dhoni remaining Varun Chakravarthy’s bunny (three dismissals in 12 balls, all bowled) have not made for pleasant viewing.
But while refraining from making a move heavy on their hearts, CSK, at least, have shown some smarts in the manner they have shielded their oldest guard.
Raina, who had almost never batted anywhere apart from number three till 2019, has only been given one innings at his previously-owned position. Dhoni has only ventured in the top-five once, allowing better-equipped batters to handle various phases of the innings.
The numbers, and the troubles, make it abundantly clear that the Super Kings couldn’t have afforded the usual state of affairs; better sense prevailed, and that has had a bearing on them finding the wins again.
The UAE U-Turn
Even the most optimistic of CSK fans would’ve felt an initial discomfort at the news of the tournament shifting back to the UAE, considering the freshness of the scars from 2020.
CSK had lost eight of their first 11 games in the country last year; now, they’re on a seven-match winning streak in the UAE. This u-turn is one of the few changes aided by external factors.
In IPL 2020, the overall scoring rate was 8.28 per over. In 15 IPL 2021 games played in the UAE so far, the scoring rate has come down 7.56. Sharjah’s relaid surface has seen it turn from a bowling nightmare to a batting menace; the pitches at Abu Dhabi haven’t been as true as they were last season; Dubai, the highest-scoring venue so far in this UAE leg, has still seen a scoring rate below eight per over.
In the second half of IPL 2021, you see glimpses of CSK’s winning template from the early 2010s – they batted deep in the first half too, but the slower surfaces in the UAE undo some of the limitations of their at times one-dimensional pace attack.
Shardul Thakur’s economy rate has come down from 10.34 in the India leg to 7.19 in the UAE; Dwayne Bravo is conceding only 5.50 per over in the UAE, having gone at 7.73 in India; Deepak Chahar has brought his economy down from 8.04 to 7.38.
On the whole, CSK are conceding 7.46 runs per over in the UAE – down from 8.36 in the seven games they played in India.
When the surfaces get slow, Dhoni’s teams start to glow; that, more than anything else, will be the warning sign for all of CSK’s competitors in the business end of IPL 2021.
Far From Perfect, But Last Dances Rarely Are
It really is shaping up into some script, isn’t it? But they’re not without their issues, are CSK – even if most of them have been shielded smartly, by design or otherwise.
The absence of high-pace, on its day, can be a telling factor, especially against intent-laden middle-orders such as the ones Mumbai Indians or Kolkata Knight Riders possess (and one of those two, at least, is quite likely to make the playoffs).
Delhi Capitals – a side CSK are likely to meet at least once, if not twice, in the playoffs – boast a bowling attack that matches up perfectly against the Super Kings batting lineup: the presence of three high-pace options (Anrich Nortje, Kagiso Rabada, Avesh Khan) could stretch a common weakness across the CSK batting order, while Axar Patel and R Ashwin offer spin variation for individual match-ups.
These will be, quite possibly, the contests that define how far CSK go in IPL 2021, and how long this CSK campaign is remembered by those watching.
By giving themselves one full week of games with less at stake, the Super Kings have gifted themselves the time and space to work on tactics to tackle those challenges that may lie ahead.
For now, though, there ought to be a small yet sweet sense of satisfaction at having turned it all around in the space of a year.
“We’ll come back strong, that’s what we are known for,” the captain had said while signing off on the forgettable IPL 2020 campaign.
They’ve done so, have the Chennai Super Kings. But the last dance is far from over.
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