At the IPL auctions, the Chennai Super Kings, after retaining the core of the team, were on the hunt for an opening pair. Apart from the openers’ hunt, new ball bowlers, with smart variations up their sleeves, were on the team management’s radar. In Dwayne Smith and Brendon McCullum, CSK put their opening worry to rest and found effective seam bowlers in Ashish Nehra, Mohit Sharma and Ishwar Pandey.
With the first leg of IPL held in the UAE, where the conditions were in slight favour of the bowlers, the bowlers had a better say than the batsmen. No matter how and for who the conditions were, Chennai were still the favourites and their new opening pair and the pace attack ensured that they were the team to beat in this year’s IPL, like the previous ones.
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The MS Dhoni-led side did not leave it late and booked a play-off berth well before others with dominating performances in the UAE leg and the first half of the Indian leg.
Traditionally slow starters, Chennai surged up the points table with a six match winning streak, which ended only when the Kings XI, the only team Chennai failed to beat in IPL 7, beat them in Cuttack. Three losses in the last four league games shook them a bit but the two-time champions are best known for their ability to perform at the big stage, under pressure.
The men in yellow looked on course for their seventh consecutive play-off spot, the only team to do so in IPL. With 18 points from 14 matches, nine wins and five losses, Chennai finished number three in the points table. Chennai, in search for their third title, have a stable opening pair, a formidable middle-order and the fearsome finisher and leader in Dhoni. The bowling attack, with a lot of options in the spin department, lacks bite with the new ball.
With a balanced squad and star players forming the spine of the side, Chennai batsmen have accumulated runs and the bowlers have taken wickets. Three of their batsmen, Dwyane Smith (535), Brendon McCullum (380) and Suresh Raina (382), feature in the top ten run-scorers list, all three having the strike rates above 130. Upfront they get starts, and more importantly, they have never been bowled out this season. While chasing they have one of the most dreaded finishers of the game – Dhoni. Apart from the leadership qualities and never-say-die attitude that he has lend to Chennai for the last seven seasons, Dhoni’s ability to tear apart any bowling has turned the matches on their head. Dhoni, who has 329 runs this season with a strike-rate of over 150, has done that one many times for his team and this season has been no exception. Dhoni powered his team home in four matches that Chennai has won chasing. His strike-rate is highest for Chennai and out of the 14 innings, he has stayed not-out on nine occasions.
The bowling department, after the UAE leg, has looked out of sorts but sparked performances in bits and pieces have salvaged some pride. They have been unable to find the fifth bowler who can slip in for a spell if the regular bowlers go for runs. Apart from leg-spinner Samuel Badree, who has played only four games and mostly bowls inside the first six overs, has an economy rate under six-and-a-half while all other bowlers have economy-rates soaring above seven-and-a-half runs per over. What adds to the bowling vows is that in the last four matches, bowlers have failed to get the wickets of the opposition’s openers inside the Powerplay. Even Dhoni conceded the same and after the loss against Sunrisers Hyderabad said, ”batsmen need to score 230 runs if the bowlers fail to take wickets upfront”.
Dwayne Smith: Chennai’s philosophy of starting slow and accelerating in the middle and death overs in previous editions did see a change this year with Brendon McCullum and Dwayne Smith taking on the bowlers from the word go. The latter has been remarkable with the bat for Chennai this season. With McCullum as his partner, Smith has played freely right from the start. He has scored 535 runs from 14 matches at a strike-rate of almost 139 and an average of over 38. Smith’s ability to clear the ropes at will has also made him the player with second highest number of sixes with 34, just one behind leader Glenn Maxwell. The West Indian has made sure that his team gets off to a good start and makes the most of the fielding restrictions. With five fifties and highest score of 76, Smith is the man in form for Chennai.
Suresh Raina: If ever there was a consistent player for a team, then it has to be Suresh Raina for Chennai. Raina, only player to score 400 runs in each IPL, is back among runs after a purple patch in the initial stage of the tournament. He has 382 runs to his name at a strike-rate just below 130 combined with three half centuries, though two of them came in a losing cause. He has guided his team in the middle overs and with MS Dhoni batting at number five, Raina lays a perfect launching pad for him.
What adds on to his batting is his fielding. Raina has been a livewire in the field for Chennai and has the ability to field both inside the circle and on the boundary ropes. The 64 catches he has taken in his IPL career show that one cannot keep him out of the game. His off-break can also be useful if Dhoni & Co. fail to find an ‘economical’ fifth bowler for their team.
The weak chords
Ben Hilfenhaus: The Australian, with 99 Test wickets, did not have a great IPL with only eight wickets from his eight matches. At a bowling average on the negative side of 30, Hilfenhuas did not live up to the expectations of the team. Given the experience he has, he should have emerged as the leader of the attack but his in-ability to take wickets initially did no good to the team’s cause. Hilfenhuas gave runs at an economy rate of 8.26, not a figure which Chennai would have liked to see. There were some patches of brilliance and one may consider him unlucky for the drop catches off his bowling, but overall it has been a poor season for the seamer. All said and done, he will still be in the Chennai scheme of things for the playoffs.
Ashish Nehra: Many would doubt Ashish Nehra to play the playoffs but if the left-arm pacer gets a game, we can well see him among the wickets. He played a major role in snapping the team’s three-game losing streak in the final league game against the Royal Challengers Bangalore. Nehra, who has played only two games, took three wickets, including that of Chris Gayle and Virat Kohli, and gave away 33 runs to finally Chennai a much needed win. Although Nehra has figures that no bowler would love to have against his name, MS Dhoni may throw the bowl to the long un-forgotten pacer.