Injection of positivity from Moeen, the return of a revitalized Raina and absurd lower-order hitting threatened to turn CSK’s fortunes around but the joy did not last long for the Super Kings. Despite game 1 providing CSK with many a silver lining, the DC encounter also rang quite a few alarm bells.
Unlike last season where they primarily lost games with the bat, the Chennai Super Kings, on Saturday, as skipper Dhoni rightly pointed out, surrendered the game to Delhi Capitals with the ball in hand. The Men in Yellow managed to right a wrong from IPL 2020 and put up an inspiring batting performance to score 189 - which was, mind you, still only par on a flat Wankhede wicket - but a listless display with the ball saw the Super Kings get obliterated on Saturday - their first defeat in the first match of the season since 2014. Dhoni & Co. will certainly take a lot of heart from how the team went about fearlessly with the bat, but we explore why, overall, the situation still looks gloomy for the Super Kings, who have more than one problem in their hands going forward.
There is a desperate need to fit in another overseas seamer - but who makes way?
The performances of the Delhi and Chennai seamers with the new ball was chalk and cheese; while both Woakes and Avesh Khan were impeccable, metronomic and troubled CSK’s top-order with testing lines and lengths, the inconsistency and innocuousness of Chahar and Curran left a lot to be desired. Curran, who has now gone wicketless in four of his last five IPL innings, lacked potency, while Chahar - who we’ll dissect in detail in a moment - looked a shadow of his 2017 and 2018 self. By the end of Delhi’s 5th over - in which Shardul leaked 17 - it became evident that Chennai, going forward, will need reinforcement in the pace-bowling department. Preferably overseas options as, though they have two talented Indian seamers on the bench in the form of Reddy and Asif, it goes without saying that experience will need to be prioritized.
In Lungi Ngidi and Jason Behrendorff - both of whom are currently unavailable - Chennai have two world-class seamers who they can go to, but the question is - who makes way? Sam Curran is an out-and-out all-rounder while Dwayne Bravo, Chennai’s best bowler versus Delhi, is the team’s designated middle-and-death specialist, so both these players are locks.
This leaves the franchise with just one, rather uncomfortable, option - of choosing between Faf du Plessis and Moeen Ali. It is true that CSK bat deep and hence can afford to sacrifice a batsman, but Faf has been their banker - across the last two seasons he’s accumulated 845 runs and in IPL 2020, he was the team’s highest run-getter. So, in all likelihood, the South African’s place is safe, for the immediate future at least, though logically it would make sense to leave him out owing to the abundance of Indian options the team has at its disposal.
This means that Moeen will have to be the sacrificial goat. But even discarding his off-spin, would it be prudent to get rid of the Englishman, particularly after he showed glimpses of the X-factor he could add to the batting line-up?
Regardless of who makes way, though, a harsh decision will have to be made, for, otherwise, Chennai will find it excruciatingly win any of their 4 remaining games at the Wankhede with the pace attack they fielded today.
The alarming fall of Deepak Chahar, the ‘Powerplay King’
It was not too long ago that batsmen, no matter how skilled they were, dreaded facing Deepak Chahar with the new ball. Across IPL 2018 and 2019, the right-armer picked a remarkable 25 wickets in the first six overs and struck once every 19 deliveries. Since last season, however, it has been a titanic struggle in the first six overs for Chahar, who has seen his powerplay strike rate jump to 34.3. Saturday marked the 10th instance in the last 15 IPL games of Chahar going wicketless in the powerplay; it was also, quite staggeringly, the fifth straight IPL game in which the 28-year-old had failed to strike inside the first six overs.
What exactly is not working for Chahar deserves a separate detailed, stand-alone dissection but it goes without saying that CSK will most certainly not make the playoffs should his pedestrian form continue. In both 2018 and 2019 the side piggybacked off his brilliance with the new ball but, as we witnessed in 2020, things go awry for the Super Kings when Chahar fails to set up the game. Perhaps the Men in Yellow still might have gotten away with Chahar misfiring had they played their games in slow wickets conducive to spin bowling, but there will be nowhere to hide for the side on the Wankhede roads.
It’s 2021 and Chennai’s spin stocks are still the biggest area of concern
After a decade of dominance, Chennai’s esteemed spin prowess suffered an ignominious fall from grace in IPL 2020 - their two lead spinners averaged a combined 42.41 and together took fewer wickets than Sam Curran - and Saturday’s encounter against Delhi indicated that the dismantling of their identity might continue this season. Ravindra Jadeja and Moeen Ali returned figures of 0/49 off 5 overs - granted on a wicket that had nothing for the spinners - and at no point looked like they would even tie the DC openers down, let alone provide a breakthrough. The spinners’ inability to control the middle-overs was Chennai’s Achilles Heel in 2020 and it is not beyond the realms of possibility that we could witness an encore this season.
Neither Moeen - who in the last 3 years has bowled his full quota of 4 overs in a T20I just once - nor Jadeja - who last season bowled an average of just 2.76 overs per game - are at this point commodities who can be relied upon to provide stability and the options they have on the bench are not too inspiring, either.
Santner and Tahir are their best options but it’ll be next-to-impossible to fit one of the two into the side; Krishnappa Gowtham can do a decent containment job but he, too, is not someone who’ll guarantee 4 overs, having bowled just 2.83 overs per game in his IPL career; R Sai Kishore is someone worth taking a punt on but he is untested at this level.
That leaves the team with Karn Sharma as the only viable alternative. As the leggie showed last season, while he is a capable-enough bowler who can provide the side with breakthroughs, he is not a spinner who falls under the ‘world-class’ category; he won’t tear the house down. The Wankhede factor - the ground where spinners took the least % of wickets in 2019 - exacerbates the problem for CSK, whose spinners getting smashed to smithereens looks inevitable.
The MS Dhoni conundrum - what to do with the skipper?
IPL 2020 taught us to not get fooled by Dhoni’s hitting in warm-up games and the Delhi Capitals encounter reiterated this fact - after smashing everything out of the park prior to the tournament, Dhoni perished for a two-ball duck. Now it is completely possible that Dhoni might turn things around as he has in the past, but, as things stand, he remains the weakest link in Chennai’s batting unit that bats till…...11.
Utilizing Dhoni - or ensuring that he does not actively damage the side - might be a headache for CSK, going forward. What do they do with him? Do they push him down to No.8, below both Jadeja and Curran, or do they try to insert him into the No.4 / No.5 slot whenever possible?
Both moves have their cons. While by promoting Dhoni up the order, CSK will risk their skipper eating up precious deliveries that other batsmen could utilize better, keeping him down the order also has a downside to it. Batting at No.7 or No.8 would demand Dhoni going hard from ball one and if there’s something we’ve learned since the start of the 2019 World Cup, it’s that the wicket-keeper batsman has lost the ability to unleash his pyrotechnics from the get-go.
Dhoni the skipper might be a boon to CSK, but Dhoni the batsman could very well prove to be a bane.