CSK have lost two out of their first three games for the first time since 2012 and there seems to be no imminent solution in sight. MS Dhoni, the man with a Midas touch, is not sure of his own move and we are just done with the first week of the IPL - surely, the world can’t get any weirder.
It really doesn’t happen often because that’s what MS Dhoni is about. You might hate him to the core, pull your hair out in frustration at what he was trying to do but when it comes to results, CSK deliver in an uncanny fashion. They win from situations you never imagined was possible and they play boring cricket but have had cracks at the trophy more than any team ever has in the history - in one word, they are the ultimate contrarian in the era of slam-bang cricket. Hate them or love them, you certainly can’t ignore them.
In the most recent IPL mega auction in 2018, Chennai Super Kings had decided not to run by the flashiness and went back to the core group they had been able to imbibe in the years before their two-year ban. They were mocked after the auction, yet went on to win their third title before claiming the runners-up trophy the following season. Pragmatism - and not perception and sentiments - was the central idea of the team as there was an ample amount of trust in the process to finalise what must have been a rigorous exercise.
But what’s ailing them now? Sure enough, the absence of Suresh Raina was a massive hit on their back but how could the team become so bizarre in the process they forgot the basics of a batting order? The first win was not a convincing bowling performance but batting was spot on. In the second game, you could argue that they played the NRR game perfectly after Murali Vijay played out 21 balls for a dogmatic 20 and Faf du Plessis took his time to settle down. But has there been a day MS Dhoni was so underconfident on his own skills and by extension, that of his team, as he was against Delhi Capitals?
The match was a story of two completely contrasting ideologies. CSK bank on their age-old formula while Delhi Capitals brim with the power of youth. While we have come to associate Dhoni with the optimisation of the resources, DC are all ‘Wham, Bam, Thank you, Ma’am’. Hence, one team’s plans were always going to fall flat but the way it did for CSK landed an uncomfortable truth which they somehow had managed to overcome in the last couple of years.
Let’s get one thing straight. It is criminal to have Murali Vijay as the opener in 2020. Even if he scores a couple of quick fifties in some matches in the future, he is a liability worth frowning upon and there are no two ways about it. Shane Watson is a big-match player but takes his own time to settle down after which it is still a lottery. Ambati Rayudu somehow gives the assurance of stability which was largely given by Suresh Raina over the years but if your top order combinedly takes 50 balls to settle down, with no guarantee of a dividend, even Andre Russell in his 2019 avatar would find the total daunting. Of course, it doesn’t help when MS Dhoni, who at his prime took on Muttiah Muralitharan and Ajantha Mendis like a piece of cake, is horrified at the prospect of facing spinners in the middle-overs currently.
Dhoni scores at 6.17 runs per over in the middle-overs since CSK returned to the fold in 2018, with Faf du Plessis managing to take his score to 7.33 and Rayudu to 7.31 during this period. It speaks of a general trend in the side failing to capitalise against spinners, which will surely come to bite them once the grass wears off in the latter stage of the tournament. But then again, CSK are known to be at the top of their game when it spins too much and it will be an interesting battle of perception and truism as the IPL 2020 rolls its juggernaut ahead.
But will that solve the Dhoni conundrum? Has there ever been a time when MS Dhoni openly admitted about his lack of resources at CSK and admitted that the ‘batting lacks steam’? Of course, he has done that while leading India, where he has an answer to give to the higher authorities, but at CSK, the dynamics are different. As N Srinivasan said multiple times in the past, the franchise doesn’t interfere in their cricketing affairs and Dhoni, along with Stephen Fleming, takes the call in their matter. So it comes as a little surprise when the CSK skipper gave excuses beyond permissible after the Delhi game.
Now that Rayudu will be back for the encounter against Sunrisers - a team that is fighting their own demons - there is an impetus to the top order but in the gratification, there lies a statement. Are CSK brave enough to show Vijay the door and ask Ruturaj Gaikwad, who, for all his success in domestic cricket is still a conservative batsman, to open alongside Watson? Can they do away with Kedar Jadhav, who doesn’t bowl anymore, a liability on the field and moreover, a total tragedy with the bat, to warm the bench and bring in a more fluid option like N Jagadeeshan at the top of the order and have Dhoni push himself up to fill in the void? Because we all know where the buck stops and in the realisation of this lies CSK’s biggest appraisal for the season ahead. MS Dhoni is the key and a strong statement to hit the nail will distil the dust out of the “muddled” water.