Shane Watson was hoping that he could find a coaching role somewhere when he ended the Indian Premier League season with Royal Challengers Bangalore last year. He was 36-years-old and had had one of the worst IPL seasons with just 76 runs and picked only five wickets. He was on his way out.
Cut to 2018, Watson is now an IPL champion. A year later, he is in the top-five runs scorers of the season in which he has two centuries. His second century came in final of IPL 2018. That’s how his career has turned around. Chennai Super Kings won their third IPL title on Sunday and Watson played a crucial part in it. But his impact cannot be confined to the final alone but throughout the tournament which saw him open the batting and leading CSK with the bat on more than one occasion.
Chennai were also making a comeback and it was complete with a title win. Coming back to IPL after a two-year gap, they had to rebuild a core team. Just after the auction, everyone had one question for them, “Why are so many players above 30 years of age?”
They were called ‘Chennai Senior Kings’, ‘Army of Oldies’ but the team turned everything in their favour. The experience of the players added up to absorb the pressure in a tournament as competitive as IPL.
The top-four of Chennai were all above 30 years of age. But all four of them finished with over 400 runs in the season. Watson was at the center of this performance. Ambati Rayudu had 602 runs in the season and finished fourth in the list. Watson was fifth. MS Dhoni and Suresh Raina scored 455 and 445 runs respectively.
While Watson and Rayudu took the lead with the bat, Dhoni and Raina were the support they needed. Dhoni averaged 75.68 in the season and that defines CSK and their team’s mindset.
The idea of oldies not belonging to T20 cricket was challenged by CSK’s performance. Kedar Jadhav and Dwayne Bravo starred in the first game of the season, both over 30 years of age. We saw Raina take control of the game on more than one occasion, vintage Dhoni stole the thunder in the initial phase of the tournament. All that dismissed that idea of oldies not belonging to T20 cricket.
On the field, we saw what Chennai did. But it began off the field. Stephen Fleming, perhaps the most successful coach in IPL, was the man who worked behind the doors. Dhoni has always trusted Fleming as both show similar characteristics. They want their players to stand strong during difficult situations, think on their feet and continued to struggle.
Watson’s innings in the final and Faf du Plessis’ in the first qualifier are perfect examples. Watson took 11 balls to get off the mark in the final. But he had played out Bhuvnehswar Kumar and Rashid Khan, the two best bowlers in the tournament. Du Plessis did the same in the Qualifier against SRH, who had the best bowling attack in the tournament at the other end which had shown multiple examples in defending low totals. Dhoni was bowled by Rashid but he wanted Du Plessis to hang in there and play out Rashid. Du Plessis won the game with five balls remaining.
Chennai backed the oldies and the oldies paid back by winning the title. The trust between the two made CSK the joint-most successful team in IPL history. They always had a team for a situation and played the game as they know it — practically.
Jadhav played on one leg to win CSK a thrilling first game against Mumbai Indians on the first day of the tournament and by the time the 60th match was played, it was still a 30-plus-year-old Chennai player dominating proceedings and taking his team towards a win as Watson absorbed the pressure.
Dhoni knows how to build a team and CSK know how to win. But it is rare that anyone from outside knows how they do it. And that is the beauty of Dhoni and CSK.