Behind CSK’s Phoenix-like rise hides the magic of a man called Dhoni
Its magic is definitely not a thing of the past.
Around the same time last year, epitaphs were being written. Father Time was believed to have caught up with Daddy’s army, the most cohesive team in Indian Premier League history was running on empty.
A year is a lifetime in professional sport. The same team, with a few names, which was the first to be eliminated from the IPL 2020, is the only team to have secured a place in the playoffs this season, three quarters of the championship phase. The Chennai Super Kings are back, and how!
Mahendra Singh Dhoni’s CSK – because it is what it is, one without the other is unimaginable – may not be the most successful team in the competition; this honor goes to the Indians of Mumbai, with five unprecedented titles. CSK wore the crown three times, including a fairytale race in 2018, upon returning from a two-year suspension. Until 2020, they had reached the semi-finals / playoffs of every IPL they had competed in (10 editions), reaching the final eight times.
Then disaster struck the United Arab Emirates last year. Suresh Raina, their secondary talisman, returned home before the competition began, becoming the second high-priced takedown after Harbhajan Singh. CSK got off to a terrible start and collapsed from bad to worse as the tournament progressed. There were pockets of genius on the part of the seasoned Faf du Plessis and the exciting Sam Curran, but their past campaign superstars have turned cold, the bazookas firing blank.
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As they stumbled from one catastrophe to the next, the muffled whispers reached a crescendo – of disappointment, barely concealed beards and ridicule. Aging bodies and minds, and an unwavering stubbornness to remain mired in the archaic, were held against them. Experts have been adamant in their claim that unless CSK shakes itself out of its self-imposed torpor, the future looks bleak, grim, threatening.
It is unlikely that the owners of CSK, their inspiring captain or longtime head coach Stephen Fleming were oblivious to the flowery obituaries that accompanied their exit from IPL 2020. Despite this, they did what ‘they have done so successfully all these years – stick to their game plans, support their instincts, bombard the air of negativity within the group and reinject the spirit and courage that had seen them achieve the impossible with regularity in the past.
In just about the only indication they needed a smooth staff shuffle, CSK sent Ruturaj Gaikwad in the blood towards the finals last year, long after their playoff chances left in smoke. The right-handed opener might have played earlier if he hadn’t contracted coronavirus and got off to a good start in his IPL career, but signed in a burst of glory, ending the season with a running back -th century in its last three innings.
The then 21-year-old from Maharashtra was the catalyst for a late push that has won CSK victories in their last three games and helped them dodge the wooden spoon, on the net rate, to the detriment of the Rajasthan Royals. Gaikwad was Player of the Match in the treble, forming a magnificent top-of-the-tree alliance with du Plessis. It was an indication of what was to follow.
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During the closed season, CSK made changes, some forced, some tactics. Shane Watson’s retirement from all cricket strengthened the Plessis-Gaikwad alliance, and they let Kedar Jadhav go. When they landed Harbhajan Singh, CSK distributed 9.25 crore rupees to K Gowtham in the February mini-auction, making Karnataka the most expensive uncapped Indian player. Interestingly, Gowtham has yet to debut his new franchise.
Beyond that, however, CSK has retained their trust in much the same staff who did their duty last year in a show of faith and trust that has been their singular calling card. Dhoni and Fleming are a crack combo because they know what makes their players tick. Any side can have a bad season; to start doubting player credentials and apply the reflex, radical changes are simply not in the DNA of this captain-coach duo.
Even in the worst of times, CSK has been loath to make radical changes. This time around, they had neither the reason nor the constraint to do so, which is why no less than eight players played all 11 games and a ninth, Moeen Ali, missed only one. Consistency in squad selection and a willingness to give players a long rope is one of the secrets to the continued excellence of the Chennai franchise in a format where consistency is the most obvious casualty. This isn’t the first time the players have responded splendidly, with Gaikwad and du Plessis setting the tone with the bat, Ravindra Jadeja showcasing overall excellence and Dwayne Bravo returning to his shrewd, parsimonious and prolific best. .
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The other usual suspects – Ambati Rayudu, Deepak Chahar, Shardul Thakur and Moeen – have more than lobbied. On the contrary, the most famous non-performer is Raina, who clocked an anemic 157 points in 10 innings, reaching a modest 127.64. But the contributions around him have been such that CSK is ready to “wear” him through the bad race, hoping he will rediscover his best touch at the end of the business.
So much has been written about Dhoni’s male management skills and his unfazedness under extreme pressure that it does not warrant repetition. Suffice to say that Dhoni magic is definitely not a thing of the past. He might not be as demonic in front of the stumps, but time hasn’t done much to slow him down or dull his mental faculties. Dhoni’s hand in the rebirth of CSK à la Phoenix is not a figment of the imagination, as evidenced by BCCI who hired him as a mentor for the T20 World Cup. If CSK finds himself brilliantly placed to launch a salvo at a fourth title, it is in large part thanks to the guiding hand of their captain – light, firm or steel, depending on, but still benevolent.