To understand Chennai Super Kings’ problems in the UAE this season, one has to go back to IPL auctions in 2018. CSK went to the auction table having retained their three pillars—skipper MS Dhoni, prolific scorer Suresh Raina and all-rounder Ravindra Jadeja. Big players come with a price tag—Rs.33 crore of their shopping purse of Rs.80 crore.
They had Rs.47 crore to make the rest of the team with two right-to-match options, which they used to get back Shane Watson and Faf du Plessis, both in their mid thirties. Some of their other picks were Kedar Jadhav, Ambati Rayudu, Murali Vijay, Harbhajan Singh and Imran Tahir.
Each was a proven international performer in his right but the lingering question then was whether a team with so many players on the wrong side of 30 last the course. Dhoni’s ‘dad’s army’ kept finding ways to win matches for two years. CSK won the title in IPL 2018 and were runners-up last season.
With the home advantage of playing on spin-friendly tracks of Chennai (CSK won 6 of 7 home games in 2019) taken away this year, and having lost Raina and Harbhajan before IPL 2020 began, CSK are the worst affected among the eight teams.
NOT HOLDING MUCH HOPES
With three wins in 10 matches, CSK still have a mathematical chance to make the playoffs, but captain and coach see the writing on the wall. “This season, we were not really there,” Dhoni, 39, said in his post-match comments on Monday.
“It’s fair to say looking at the table now that this team may have run out of juice. If you’re looking at the three-year cycle—we won the first year; lost off the last ball last year, and we always thought that the third year with an ageing squad would be difficult. And Dubai (UAE) has challenged us with a whole new set of requirements,” coach Stephen Fleming said.
In the auctions last year, CSK kept faith in the home-advantage winning template, releasing none of the old legs while also adding another international player past his prime—leg-spinner Piyush Chawla. When Chawla’s bid began to rise, Fleming, getting edgy, gave the cut-throat gesture to suggest they were out but was urged by CEO KS Viswanathan to go on. Viswanathan takes the salary calls on the auction table, with a running phone call presumably with the skipper.
With CSK having adopted an experience-first strategy, all the India U-19 stars of the recent seasons, from Shubhman Gill, Prithvi Shaw, Shivam Mavi, Kamlesh Nagarkoti, Ravi Bishnoi to Yashasvi Jaiswal are spread across other franchises. Even finds from Tamil Nadu Premier League like pacers T Natarajan and Basil Thampi and spinner Varun Chakravarthy are in other teams.
RAW DEAL FOR YOUNG GUNS
The young domestic performers in CSK have been given few opportunities. Ruturaj Gaikwad, an exciting young top-order batsman from Maharashtra, asked to bat out of position in the middle order, failed twice before he was dropped. N Jagadeesan, the 24-year-old second wicket-keeper in the squad, was dropped after a run-a-ball 33 in his only match, for poor strike-rate.
“There were a few chances to the youngsters and maybe we didn’t see the kind of spark they could have given us to say, okay, push the experienced guy and maybe make some space for them,” said Dhoni.
The CSK skipper went on to speak about the need to give the experienced men a fair run and avoid insecurity over berths.
It is in contrast to Dhoni’s views as India skipper. It was he who urged the national selectors to look for fresh legs when India were taking baby steps in T20 cricket in 2007. Ironically, it is his team of ageing men who are letting down CSK, the three-time IPL champions.
Dhoni, who became the first man to play 200 IPL games on Monday, frequently spoke of returning to the ‘process’ to avoid undue pressure. That ‘process’ though desperately needs an upgrade.