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Cricket news - Ageing CSK still a force to reckon with

A few of the heroes of CSK's 2019 campaign

At the end of the 2018 Indian Premier League auctions, there were surprises aplenty and a lot more sniggers after Chennai Super Kings (CSK) assembled what looked like a team for at most one season. They had retained their Indian core, their key overseas professionals were back with the franchise and they garnished it with some more toppings. Unlike other franchises though, they preferred 'experience' over 'youth'. And so, while there was a mad rush to buy the next upcoming IPL superstar available in the market, the Chennai based franchise hedged their bets on the men who had the experience of winning titles previously. So in came the likes of Shane Watson, Harbhajan Singh, Imran Tahir, Ambati Rayudu and Kedar Jadhav.

'Dad's Army' - was what the team was called when they stepped onto the field in 2018. Were they spurred by the insinuations? Or was it the hurt of being banned from the game for two years or was it the experience that spoke? Chennai Super Kings surprised one and all by cruising their way to their third IPL trophy. So when 2019 arrived, the pundits spoke glowingly about MS Dhoni and his band of old men. Still, doubts persisted, they hadn't made any significant additions to their squad and it meant the men who had been instrumental in their 2018 run were expected to do an encore.

As the season progressed, MS Dhoni would go on from being a leader of men to one who would hold the frailing batting together, Deepak Chahar reveled in his role as the senior pace bowler in the injury-enforced absence of Lungisani Ngidi, Tahir brought a different dimension into play and Watson threatened a repeat of the 2018 final heist.

The Super Kings were the first team to book their playoff berth, a mild dip in form notwithstanding, they were the first team to confirm a top-two berth, they made Chepauk their fortress and guarded it with zeal. It was the CSK of yore and every other franchise struggled to break the code, barring one - the Mumbai Indians. It was only apt that they finished second best to the champions, beaten but not disgraced by any means. Yet, things could have turned so different had MS Dhoni completed that extra millimeter, had Watson completed the three yards he fell short by or had Shardul Thakur got bat to ball on that final delivery - still, one title and one runners-up position wasn't a bad bargain for a team that written off by all and sundry.

What worked for them?

MS Dhoni not only led from the front as captain, but in a misfiring batting line-up, he finished as the leading batsman, making 416 runs at a very fine average of 83.20, the strike-rate was a very decent 134.63. Some of his batting brought back memories of the man who was at his very peak a few seasons ago and it's fair to say he had a big role to play in the surge that saw the Super Kings win seven out of their first eight games. In a season where the fourth-placed franchise qualified for the playoffs with 12 points, CSK's head-start ensured that they were comfortably over the line for qualification despite a late dip in form.

Chahar and his opening bursts gave Dhoni the freedom to work with spin during the latter half of the innings and that meant Imran Tahir emerged as a genuine wicket-taking option. The 40-year old leg spinner finished the campaign with a rich haul of 26 wickets, enough to secure him the purple cap for most wickets in the competition. The frugality of Chahar also meant he gave a head start to his franchise during the batting powerplay - often pegging opposition batting line-ups with timely wickets.

What pulled them back?

The core Indian batting meltdown. Suresh Raina, Ambati Rayudu, MS Dhoni, Kedar Jadhav and Ravindra Jadeja - on paper, no other franchise could boast of a strong Indian batting core as the Super Kings of Chennai. But reality turned out to be so different. Raina was a pale shadow of his once irrefutable consistency, Rayudu was pulled down by a change in the batting order and then the hurt of being not considered good enough to be a part of the 15-man World Cup bound India squad. Jadhav turned out modest outings with the bat and his slingy action wasn't required with the ball before a flare-up of his shoulder injury sidelined him while Jadeja couldn't convince his captain that he was good enough to bat in the top six.

Also missing was consistent pace support to Deepak Chahar. Ngidi's injury and the unavailability of David Willey was bad news for Chennai. Not only had they lost fine new-ball operators, they were now without an ideal partner for Chahar. They did try Shardul Thakur, but he was wildly inconsistent and so was the New Zealand replacement, Scott Kuggeleijn. At home, Harbhajan Singh was more than handy, but on better batting pitches, the lack of support for Chahar stood out like a sore thumb.

What did they sorely miss?

Nothing really, yes, they didn't have the ideal pace bowlers in certain conditions. Yes, their ground fielding reflected their age, but they still held on to most of the catches. The batting had plenty of turmoil, but the depth ensured that it was masked to a great extent. Most of the coin tosses went their way and it ensured that they did what they set out to do.

Signing of the season - The re-emergence of Imran Tahir

The Super Kings came into the 2019 auctions with 'continuity' being the team mantra. With most of the bases covered, it wasn't a surprise that they did the least business at the auction table. They bought two players - Ruturaj Gaikwad and Mohit Sharma. The former warmed the bench while the latter was discarded after one poor game. In a way, the re-emergence of Imran Tahir was what made headlines. At 40, the South African leg-spinner wasn't expected to lead CSK's attack. He had played a small role in the 2018 title triumph, having featured in only 6 games. But the absence of Ngidi and the spin friendly home pitches catapulted him to stardom. The leg-spinner controlled the middle overs with aplomb and returned with 26 wickets. It wasn't just the wickets, his mean economy rate of 6.70 meant there was no way opposition batsmen could get away from him.

What's on the highlight reels

Dhoni, Dhoni and more Dhoni. For once, the CSK skipper shed his inhibitions and came out to dazzle the crowd with electrifying strokeplay - none more than his 46-ball unbeaten 75 against Rajasthan Royals and the 48-ball unbeaten 84 against Royal Challengers Bangalore. In a batting line-up that repeatedly showed a tendency to collapse, Dhoni stood out for his tenacity and power-hitting. It wasn't just his batting, his keeping remained sharp and the two stumpings off Chris Morris and Shreyas Iyer proved why he's still India's go to wicket-keeper batsman, even at the age of 37.

On a scale of 1 to 10..

Auction and retention strategy - 8/10

The Super Kings did very little business at the auction table ahead of the 2019 edition of the tournament and it had a lot to do with their perfect retention strategy. Retaining the title winning core of 2018 was a no-brainer and that meant they had very few holes to plug. They kept faith in Shane Watson despite a wretched run of form and the Man of the Match winner in the 2018 finals nearly did an encore. Age and dwindling fielding abilities didn't factor in their calculations as CSK backed their experienced core to the hilt.

Batting output - 5/10

MS Dhoni was Chennai's leading run-scorer but he finished only 13th in the overall tally of highest run-getters list. Suresh Raina was a constant name in the batting order, but his 383 runs came at a woeful average of 23.94. Shane Watson and Faf du Plessis performed in stops and starts while Ambati Rayudu and Kedar Jadhav were a big let-down. Despite these shortcomings, CSK didn't tinker a lot with their batting order with the bench hardly getting a look-in. Murali Vijay looked solid in his two outings while Dhruv Shorey and Sam Billings had to be satisfied with one game each.

Bowling prowess - 9/10

In a team filled with plenty of batting talent, it was the bowlers who held sway and were largely responsible for CSK finishing in the top-two. Deepak Chahar was a revelation, his 22 wickets at 21.91 and the sheer amount of dot balls he bowled in the powerplay (he bowled the most by any bowler) meant that Dhoni could exert control over the proceedings. His job at the top was complimented by Imran Tahir, who enjoyed a breakthrough season with the Super Kings, edging out Kagiso Rabada for the purple cap. At home games, Harbhajan Singh was a constant nuisance to the opposition and the two all-rounders, Dwayne Bravo and Ravindra Jadeja, justified their billing. So did Mitchell Santner in the limited opportunities he got.

Overall Performance - 7/10

This wasn't the most perfect CSK season. They started superbly, winning 7 out of their first 8 games, which all but sealed their playoffs position. The dip started once MS Dhoni started to miss games, the captaincy changed hands and so did the results. CSK won only two of their next six games, but the early surge had done enough to secure them a top-two place. Chepauk was their fortress, but crucially, it was breached twice - both by Mumbai Indians. The second of those defeats saw them take a detour to Vizag, where they overcame Delhi Capitals in the Eliminator, before falling to their nemesis once again in Hyderabad. Dhoni conceded that their ground fielding wasn't the greatest, but you couldn't expect any better from a team which had a bunch of 35+ somethings. In the end, it came to catching and fitness - Raina dropping Hardik Pandya and Watson's spent energy while trying to sneak in a second run, was perhaps the difference between the two teams in an error-strewn final night on Sunday (May 12th).

Is 2019 an improvement on 2018?

A difficult question to answer considering the age factor of this CSK line-up. This was a team that was chosen keeping short-term gains in mind and as such winning two consecutive titles would have been a huge surprise. No franchise other than CSK have won back-to-back titles and hence it's unfair to tag this unit to the class of 2010 and 2011. Two things during the course of time remained constant, the captaincy of Dhoni and the batting of Raina. However, the latter's form was a matter of concern this time and it meant the solidity of the middle-order went missing. The performances might have dipped, but it was still good enough to guide the team to a final finish. In terms of individual performances, the likes of Dhoni, Tahir and Chahar got better, all-rounders, Bravo and Jadeja were steady while the likes of Rayudu, Raina and even Watson fell away.

What next then?

The pre-2020 build-up should be an exciting period of time for all CSK fans. Can this ageing unit summon enough strength for another fling at the title? Or is it time to look for fresh talents? Shane Watson announced his retirement from Australia's Big Bash and if he indeed returns to CSK, he will be coming on the back of limited match practice. What about the likes of Harbhajan Singh, Dwayne Bravo and Imran Tahir? The team management backed their players to the hilt this season, but will they remain patient with their misfiring Indian middle-order core? The biggest hint though was given by captain MS Dhoni - known for a penchant at throwing surprises, has the skipper sent a cryptic message to the franchise with his 'Hopefully Yes' comment when asked about his availability for the next season? Plenty of questions and at least a few should be answered at the auction table. For sure, the auction strategy of CSK 2020 will be a lot different when compared to CSK 2019.

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