After the lion roared in all its seasons, it was almost a given that the fall would be mighty. And come 2020, we witnessed that fall - Chennai Super Kings failed to make the playoffs for the first time in IPL history, finishing seventh in the 2020 edition of the IPL.
Chennai Super Kings and a play-off spot, a never-ending love history. Oh wait. Yes, you heard it right. For the first time since IPL was a thing; since Android transformed from a tiny baby into a monster, CSK failed to qualify for the knockout stage. They were without their Chinna Thala, Suresh Raina, and ace off-spinner, Harbhajan Singh, but as shrewd as they are in the IPL auctions table generally, they were not right last time around.
However, the last three games of the 2020 season will come as a glimmer of hope for the franchise, especially the way Ruturaj Gaikwad played at the top of the order. This time around, they have signed several stars, including Moeen Ali and Krishnappa Gowtham, and surprised several with the coups of Cheteshwar Pujara and Robin Uthappa. So, the question is, can they get back in the groove?
What was the story last year?
The story was rather a terrible one. After winning the first game against bitter-rivals Mumbai Indians, Chennai endured their worst run in the IPL, finishing second to bottom. Even though they won their last three games convincingly, against RCB, KKR and KXIP, they could only end with 12 points, finishing above only Rajasthan Royals in the points table.
Where exactly do they stand this season?
Chennai, traditionally have had the best mix of batsmen and bowlers, on par with Mumbai Indians. However, their strategy ever since the comeback has been appalling, especially picking up players well beyond their prime years. But despite the age factor, last season it was a 36-year-old Faf du Plessis who stood right through the testing times, with 449 runs, at an average of 40.81 and a strike rate of 140.75. Remarkably, however, so bad was their performance with the bat that their average scoring batting first, 139.75, was lower than du Plessis’ strike rate. Dreadful, if you want to call it that.
The Powerplay | 2020 - end of an era; 2021 - start of a new one?
In the 14 games last season, CSK only managed to score 561 runs off 504 deliveries that they faced in the powerplay, which, as expected, was the worst tally amongst all sides. Barring the one game against KXIP, the openers - Shane Watson and Faf du Plessis - endured a tough form together at the top of the order. In the first six overs, CSK on average, only scored 40 runs, hitting just 6.14 boundaries per game despite all but 2 fielders being inside the ring.
Can they fix this terrible stat?
To a certain extent, they tried fixing it as early as late 2020. During the last leg of IPL 2020, CSK did make a considerable change, an overhaul, in fact - deploying Ruturaj Gaikwad and Faf du Plessis as their openers, a move that worked out really well. In fact, Gaikwad, in the four innings he batted in the powerplay, scored 66 runs, with just one dismissal, striking at 100.
Now the strike rate doesn’t read too good, which exactly was one of their problems last season. On the other hand, there was Faf du Plessis, who scored 170 runs in the first six, at a strike-rate of 138.2 while averaging 28.3. Together the duo opened in just four games, a small sample space to make a judgement on. But do they have options?
C Hari Nishaanth or Narayan Jagadeesan won’t solve the problem, with their strike-rate on par with the current openers, which is why they would have to look at either Robin Uthappa or Moeen Ali at the top of the order. While Uthappa has rarely opened in the last two years, the turn of events at Kerala suggests that he would be a prime contender for the slot; since the start of 2020, he’s scored 177 runs in the powerplay at an average of 29.5 and a SR of 135.1.
The other out-of-the-box option that CSK possesses - Moeen Ali - could be deadly at the top of the order, having scored 222 runs in the powerplay since the start of 2019, at a strike-rate of nearly 130. In his career, the left-hander, while used at the top of the order, has scored 1116 runs at an average of 29.4 while striking it at 160, and, to go along with this, he also gives a left-right combination to delve into.
Middle overs | An ageing Suresh Raina and a problem of plenty
Another phase that the Super Kings have struggled with is in the middle-overs, where often they have had the resources but have been unable to turn that into a bright result. In the middle-overs phase, CSK have struggled with proactiveness - striking just 5.6 boundaries during the phase while scoring 56.4 runs on average. This is where it gets tricky, CSK have lost the least amount of wickets during that time, 18, which suggests that it has never been the problem of too many wickets at the top but an issue of approach.
CSK’s strike rate of 117 was the third-worst last season, which indicates where the problem lied, in the absence of their star player, Suresh Raina. However, even his return would not do the franchise a lot of good, with the left-hander having struggled during that phase, of late, to increase the tempo. In the past two years, Raina has scored just 234 runs during the middle period, at an average of 29.2 and SR of 122.5. Around him, however, there is a serious workaround that could save Chennai from blushes, unlike last season.
Last season, they played around with their middle-order before eventually sticking with Ambati Rayudu at No.3. While Rayudu came up with the runs, his intent certainly cost the franchise some handy runs. However, Raina’s return would ultimately push the right-hander back to No.4, which means CSK could try playing one of Faf du Plessis or Moeen Ali at No.5, ahead of Dhoni and Jadeja.
Unlike both Dhoni and Jadeja, the international pair here would provide the impetus and can adeptly handle spin, as witnessed from last year’s action. While Faf has scored 319 runs during that phase, it has come at an average of 53.2 and a strike-rate of 120, with the strike-rate increasing to 143 by the beginning of the 12th over. In comparison, Moeen, who has batted in the middle-over as well, has struck 471 runs at an average of 29.4, with a strike-rate of 170. With the franchise playing their first leg in Mumbai, it would be important for them to better their average from last year and turn it around to a score of at least 180, an above-par total at the Wankhede Stadium.
Batting at the death | Jadeja-Dhoni hold fort or CSK crash out
Despite having two of India’s great power hitters in Dhoni and Jadeja, CSK have struggled to close out games and set good targets in the past season. Now there is a workaround for that but a workaround that still involves Dhoni and Jadeja in the scheme of things. With the purchase of Krishnappa Gowtham, CSK have a great batting option at the death.
That’s where it should boil down to - using their resources very well, especially Faf du Plessis, Sam Curran, Dhoni, Jadeja and Gowtham. Since 2019, batting at the death, du Plessis has scored 183 runs off 86 deliveries, averaging 45.8 while striking it at 212.8 with a dot ball percentage of 15.1, albeit the runs coming when he was set. Let’s extend that to Sam Curran - the left-hander, during the same timeline, has scored 156 runs off the same number of deliveries, at a strike-rate of 181.4, and has shown his ability to take the game deep in the past.
Now over to the usual suspects - Dhoni and Jadeja - who were chalk and cheese last year. While Dhoni struggled to find momentum and find that ‘sweet’ spot on his bat, Jadeja found it with ease, topping all the strike-rate charts at one point in the season. 184 of Jadeja’s 232 runs came in the final stage of the innings, at a strike-rate of 206, despite having a dot ball percentage of 19.1, which is why he should always be integral to CSK’s final hurrah with the bat.
Last season, Dhoni would only score 128 runs during the death, at a strike-rate of 142, but if 2019 is considered, Dhoni’s strike rate takes a leap to 160 batting in the end, which is where he could find himself this year, with Raina’s return. Now the final piece of the puzzle, ‘KG’ Gowtham, who can really pack a death-ly punch, has scored 128 runs in 67 balls in the final phase of the innings, at a strike-rate of 191. When you combine that with Shardul Thakur, CSK have enough batting depth to cause teams a whole lot of problems.
Not a great deal of changes but surely a great deal could change from the recent season, especially if they consider and plot their moves properly, both at the top and in the death, where they struggled last season. While they might have struggled last season, particularly due to their inability to fill the gaping hole left by Raina, this season they should comfortably thwart back to ascendancy if they approach it right.
Certainly, last year, CSK’s bowling unit endured a nightmare of a season. All they could do was think about their better nights from the previous two editions and try not to cry.
Powerplay | Form is temporary; class is........? We'll find out
With just 15 wickets in the powerplay last season, CSK were the second-worst team in the league after the first six overs. Deepak Chahar was back but his form didn’t aid him or his side. CSK were lost for a plan in the powerplay phase, sometimes even making people wonder if they’d throw the ball to Shane Watson to provide spark. Eventually they conceded 44.8 runs in the first six on an average while just picking 1.07 wickets per game, which isn’t just bad but terrible, particularly for a team that takes pride in its powerplay bowling.
Can Deepak Chahar get back to form?
While other teams have struggled with combinations or with selection choices, Chennai had a bizarre struggle last season - their lead bowler, Deepak Chahar, struggled for form. And he wasn’t just struggling, he was STRUGGLING, picking up just seven wickets in the powerplay. There is no real solution to this, apart from praying and hoping that he gets back on track and in-form.
However, around Ngidi and Curran, CSK can do something really fancy, chance their arms and bring in either Mitchell Santner or Sai Kishore into the setup. Since 2019, Santner, bowling in the powerplay, has picked up 6 wickets at an economy rate of 6.84. While he isn’t a natural wicket-taker, restricting the boundary balls could lead to wickets elsewhere, as New Zealand have witnessed in the recent past.
There is a workaround here, if CSK doesn’t want to seal down that fourth foreign slot - bring in Sai Kishore. While he would be bowling at the Wankhede, where bounce would be on offer, it would be crucial to get the left-arm spinner bowling early, where he has picked most of his 33 T20 wickets, while only conceding 5.28 runs per over - extremely crucial in T20s.
On the other hand, an extremely out of the box idea which could work out well for Chennai is to throw in newcomer Harishankar Reddy, who could come as a surprise on the skiddy wickets in Mumbai. The pacer, who with his slightly slingy action picked up seven wickets in the SMAT season, where he not just struck in the powerplay but did so with ease, could be a handy option.
Middle-overs | Spin: The double-edged sword
With the bat or the ball, the struggle begins for CSK in the middle-overs, where they really aren’t quite up to the league standards. Last year, across games, CSK conceded 861 runs in 662 deliveries while picking up just 24 wickets, with their spinners really struggling for control. Despite the big bucks, Piyush Chawla’s one season was enough to send him back to the auction table, so where do CSK go from here?
Can Ravindra Jadeja still hold the fort with the ball after the failure last season?
Across 10 games last season, Jadeja picked up just four wickets in the middle-overs, which led to a mini-crisis in the Chennai camp, so much so CSK only picked up 24 wickets in the middle-overs phase. And the mantra behind their domination was spin, which unfortunately wouldn’t be their go-to-thing this year, especially considering they are playing in Mumbai.
So that then gives them two options - either to back experience or to go YOLO with a new plan for the season. Last year witnessed the birth of pace-enforcers in the league, with Anrich Nortje putting on a show in nonchalant fashion, but CSK didn’t adapt the tactic. But they might have to, this year, especially looking at how the league has evolved.
Shardul Thakur and Imran Tahir can really stand tall when it comes to bowling in the middle-overs phase, with both of them having the knack of picking up wickets. After the powerplay and before the death overs, Thakur has picked up six wickets last season for CSK while Tahir has picked up seven wickets since 2020 around the world.
While not just that, Tahir’s book of variations, with both pace and lines would help in Dhoni attacking the opposition more aggressively, something they missed last season. Or given that CSK doesn’t have an out and out pacer, they could also try out bowling KM Asif in the middle-overs, where he has succeeded for Kerala in the Syed Mushtaq Ali Trophy, picking up six wickets.
Death overs | Placed fifth but can do a lot better
Overall, last season was a mighty troubled one for the Men in Yellow and death overs was no different, with them conceding 786 runs in 14 games, at an average of 56.14 at an economy rate of 10.43. So what can CSK do to better this tally?
CSK’s perennial enemy should turn into their foe
Chennai doesn’t always find themselves chasing the game, especially in the death overs, where usually they would have already closed out games with the ball in the middle-overs. However, if an opportunity presents itself, like last year, they would need to take immediate steps. At the death, CSK have four options, all of whom could fetch them wickets with ease. Rely on the usual folks - Bravo and Thakur - or pop in one of Chahar or Ngidi to the mix.
Now having Lungi Ngidi solves multiple problems for the franchise - he can bowl in the early part of the innings, get his pace up to the 140s mark, and also throw down overs at the death, where he has had the best of his time in Chennai colours. Last year, despite only bowling seven overs at the death, the Saffer picked up six wickets, striking every seventh delivery. While Thakur just picked up three wickets at the death last season, he has picked up 14 wickets in the death for India since last year, with an impressive economy rate of 9.07.
Why Deepak Chahar? In the past, Chahar hasn’t been considered as a death-over bowler or even experimented a lot in the death, but given that he has picked up 4 wickets since 2020, bowling just the nine overs, he can bring in a lot of variations in the end, especially with his slower yorkers.
Unfortunately, for CSK, a lot isn’t going to change even if it means playing in India, especially on tracks where only 20.73% of the wickets have been taken by spinners. However, the Men in Yellow have the seam-bowlers and pace bowlers in the arsenal who could provide them with the breakthroughs in Mumbai. Of course, when they head to Delhi, the spinners would be back in prime-time action.