Midway through an inky Friday night in Sharjah, an era of Chennai Super Kings’ invincibility ended without a fight, but with a sense of inevitability. There was no better proof of CSK’s calamitous season, and a desperate need for renewal, than this night. They were helpless, and beyond it, hopeless in preventing a disastrous exit from the tournament.
It was the most un-CSK performance of all times. They huffed and puffed to 114 for 9, and what rubbed salt into their festering wounds was the fact that Mumbai Indians won with 10 wickets to spare in just 12.2 overs.
What would rankle them and their feverish supporters is the sheer abjectness of their defeat. Seldom have they surrendered so meekly ever in the league that they have won thrice and reached at least till the knockouts. Worse, there was a sense of foreboding about the impending disaster. There was a sense of resignation even in MS Dhoni’s reactive decision to ring in three changes—snuffing out the underwhelming Kedar Jadhav, Shane Watson and Piyush Chalwa and replacing them with Ruturaj Gaikwad, N Jagadeesan and Imran Tahir. Changes, that seemed, for the sake of changing, as it had been for most of this season.
There was an unusual tentativeness in their approach. Sinking shoulders, drooping eyes, and dejected faces manifesting in a muddled thought process. Nothing more symbolic than Faf du Plessis’s mode of dismissal. Rather than drive a full-length ball, he just threw his hard hands at the ball, the front-foot stuck and static at the crease, hands stabbing at the ball. It was clear that Trent Boult’s in-swinger was spooking his mind, and hence over-conscious of not thrusting his front-foot. The shot selection was perfect, but the execution far from it.
He was not alone in lack of clarity. So was his colleague Ambati Rayudu. He attempted to pull Jasprit Bumrah. The stroke was on, as the ball was relatively shortish. But his stroke seemed half-hearted as if he wanted to pull away from the stroke at the last moment. Bumrah is the last bowler you want to face half-heartedly and Rayudu’s indecision sufficed.
No doubt, Boult and Bumrah bowled hostilely, mixing their lengths and angles smartly. There was barely a blade of grass, but they are masterly in producing movement off the seam. Boult especially was menacing — he would slide the ball across the right-handed batsmen, before skidding one onto the pads. CSK batsmen lived in the constant fear of inward-bending delivery. The unsure feet-movement stemmed from it. Boult resembled a psychoanalyst, hypnotising batsmen and reading their minds.
— Mumbai Indians (@mipaltan) October 23, 2020
But as superbly as they bowled, CSK lost the plot completely. It was a matter of seeing off Boult and Bumrah, like Manish Pandey had negotiated Jofra Archer on Thursday. Or they could have ventured on a no-holds-barred counterattack. They chose neither, but the fatal middle path. Like Ravindra Jadeja, who sashayed down to Boult and tried to heave him over mid-wicket. Mistake. There are times, even in T20 cricket, when you have to prioritise safety over aggression. Jadeja’s departure plunged them to 21/5 in 5.2 overs, CSK’s worst-ever score in the power-play overs. Their last hope was Dhoni, and he did raise hopes with a couple of thundering strokes, before he tried an expansive drive off Deepak Chahar. A stroke out of frustration than anything else.
The captain could pinpoint a lot of reasons behind their worst season. Injuries, form, defection, fortune, and what not. But he can’t shirk away from responsibilities himself. His numbers reinforced his decline, which has been over-storied — just 181 runs at a strike rate of 122 in 11 innings. There were times he could have walked in at No.3 or 4, but he didn’t. There were times his intuitions and reflexes failed him too.
As much as his influence as a batsman, his leadership was strangely jaded, bereft of inspiration, a definite caginess that had marked his last days as Test captain. For example, he introduced as influential a match-winner as Imran Tahir too late into the campaign, more so as Dwayne Bravo was injured for most of the series. N Jagadeesan had shown immense promise in his first match, but then was omitted for the next two. They seemed a team drifting away from the nucleus, their wheels coming off. Like on Friday evening, he looked defeated.
Lack of planning
Blatantly evident was a lack of planning. It seemed, they had no plan B, C, or even D. They lost Suresh Raina as soon as they landed in the Emirates, and they had no back-up plan. They kept experimenting with the No.3, but none quite glued in. Dhoni alleged that the youngsters were not showing spark; then neither did the old warhorses. Likewise, the bowling was over-dependent on Bravo’s trickery. The rest were at best utilitarian in this format. Josh Hazlewood is a high-class Test bowler, but ill-suited to T20 cricket. Sam Curran can be a reliable third seamer in a trifecta, but incapable yet of single-handed demolition. Deepak Chahar is one-dimensional, Shardul Thakur is limited while the trusted spin pair of Piyush Chawla and Karn Sharma are metronomes of neither discipline nor destruction.
Superior planning and shrewd strategising could have glossed over some of their flaws, but with neither, they unravelled. The margins of defeat throws ample signs of their disintegration. Barring a seven-run defeat at the hands of Sunrisers, most of the rest have been pretty comprehensive — 16 runs, 44 runs, 10, 37, 5 wickets, 7 wickets. The defeat at hands of Mumbai was just the final twist of the dagger into the hearts. These are signs that suggest it was not a case of one freakishly bad season, or an aberration, rather a case of deep-set rot.
A lot of focus would be shed on the age factor. It was not age alone that hampered them, but acumen, adaptability and planning too. The very factors that have stood by them for much of this decade. Or maybe, it was the game’s reminder that their era of invincibility had ended. And slipped into the inky skies of Sharjah.
Brief scores: CSK 114/9 in 20 overs (S Curran 52; T Boult 4/18, J Bumrah 2/25, R Chahar 2/22) lost to Mumbai Indians 116/0 in 12.2 overs (I Kishan 68*, Q de Kock 46*)