If odds are derived from both reflection and reflex, then then there’s no room to question Chennai Super Kings’ status: they start another IPL season with the bull’s eye on their back and a chasing pack of seven eager to topple them.
There’s a reason why only one team has ever successfully defended its IPL title. The team convenes after the international calendar in vastly different circumstances, sometimes with very different personnel, and can find it has quite lost the edge that carried it past 50-50 situations just 12 months ago. There’s always one other team that’s dipped into the player pool and acquired the flavour of the season, cracked the balance code or simply riding a wave of momentum in the Playoffs.
The biggest factor CSK have in their favour is their captain. MS Dhoni is at ease in an environment that almost seems purpose-built for him. He has, by his side, a coach who shares his views on the virtues of consistency and a management structure that does not question his cricketing decisions. It helps him work with little distraction and the benefits have naturally been astronomical.
But it would be unfair to attribute CSK’s success only to one person. They are blessed with a supremely talented squad that specialises in back-from-the-dead acts. It’s a supposition that stems from last year’s campaign that saw several jailbreaks and as many as eight different Man of the Match winners. That the unit has its bases covered keeps Dhoni prepared to deal with any mid-season eventuality like an injury or a change of home venue.
For a decade now, the bar at Chepauk has been set dauntingly high and the measure of CSK’s success has been their ability to meet it, then outjump it. Those wearing yellow, on the field, in the stands and in front of television sets, will have it no other way this year.
Possible Starting XI: Shane Watson, Faf du Plessis, Suresh Raina, Ambati Rayudu, MS Dhoni (c & wk), Kedar Jadhav, Dwayne Bravo, Ravindra Jadeja, Mitchell Santner, Harbhajan Singh/Karn Sharma/Shardul Thakur, Deepak Chahar/Mohit Sharma, Lungi Ngidi
Others in Squad: Murali Vijay, Sam Billings, Imran Tahir, David Willey, Mitchell Santner, Dhruv Shorey, N Jagadeesan, Ruturaj Gaikwad, Chaitanya Bishnoi, Monu Kumar, KM Asif
Strengths: The knowledge of having been there and done that & a batting order with significant girth
CSK bat deep and the presence of Kedar Jadhav, who played just one game last season, adds heft to an already power-packed line-up. Jadhav also joins a bevy of all-rounders – Dwayne Bravo, Mitchell Santner, Ravindra Jadeja, Shane Watson – who can be the insurance when another bowler has an off-day.
Weakness: Ground fielding & death bowling
While experience helped them with better decision making in pressure situations last year, an average squad age of 32 showed its effect on the field, with many players shackled by the mischief of Father Time. From once having a fit Jadeja-Raina-McCullum-Du Plessis axis on the off-side ring, CSK have come to temper their expectations of ground fielding, with even Bravo facing Dhoni’s wrath last season for his surprising lethargy on the field. Michael Hussey called for ‘collective smarts’ in the fielding and it is a facet of their game, that will be under scrutiny once more.
Off the CSK players to play at least three games last season, Bravo finished with the worst economy – 9.96. Dhoni’s death-bowling linchpin struggled with the efficacy of his patented dipping slower-ball yorkers at the death. With Deepak Chahar predominantly used in the PowerPlay and Shardul Thakur too conceding at 9.24, it was an area that had the CSK management concerned, evidenced by their acquisition of Mohit Sharma.
Opportunity: The Mitchell Santner corollary
CSK will welcome into their squad one of their smartest buys in the 2018 auction – left-arm spinner Mitchell Santner. The New Zealand spinner, who missed last year because of a long injury layoff, promises to be an upgrade on Ravindra Jadeja. He is an excellent defensive bowler in the mould of his compatriot Daniel Vettori and has proved himself to be a handy striker of the cricket ball. Santner, despite being a foreign option, will keep Jadeja on his toes, with the Indian all-rounder already eager to make a late push for a World Cup berth.
Threat: The resistance to change and the World Cup
CSK are averse to tinkering with their playing XI, an attribute that will be put to test if their World Cup-bound players ask for rest. The threat comes, not so much from foreign players but from their local core with as many as four – Dhoni, Jadhav, Rayudu and Jadeja – first-XI players needing breathers before the showpiece event. How Dhoni and Stephen Fleming find contingency will be key to their navigation through the league phase.