The Chennai Super Kings had too many leaks in their ship at the same time in the last IPL and they ended up second from the bottom – failing to qualify for the playoffs for the first time in their 11 seasons in the league.
Nearly five months later, a new season begins but the Super Kings have the same old problems. Here’s how they can steady their vessel and perhaps steer it back to the playoffs.
Don’t be too rigid
In their five-wicket win over the Mumbai Indians in last season’s opener, CSK promoted left-handers Ravindra Jadeja and Sam Curran up the order “to intimidate the bowler“, according to captain MS Dhoni, but they weren’t as flexible with their line-up overall. Curran was later promoted to open in the second half of the season, and while he showed attacking enterprise, oppositions countered by peppering him with the short stuff. Perhaps Curran had too much to do, having also been tasked with bowling the tough overs in the powerplay and the death.
The Super Kings kept giving an ageing Shane Watson and a woefully out-of-form Kedar Jadhav games in the hope that they would come good at some point. While the team could afford such a strategy when their home games were at Chepauk, it hurt them in the UAE, where they couldn’t adapt to the conditions.
They will likely face a similar challenge this season, with eight of their 14 leagues fixtures scheduled at the Wankhede Stadium in Mumbai and the Chinnaswamy Stadium in Bengaluru. The average first-innings IPL score at the Wankhede in the past couple of seasons is 173 and at the Chinnaswamy 182 during this period. CSK need to tear up their old template of leaving it late in the game and instead try to maximise at the top in these high-scoring venues. These two grounds, along with the Eden Gardens in Kolkata, where CSK are set to play two matches, also don’t favour spin, so they may have to rejig their bowling attack as well.
Make the most of Jadeja’s batting
Despite being in top batting shape and playing in the absence of Suresh Raina, Jadeja got to face only 135 balls last season, making 232 runs at a strike rate just under 172.
The season opener against Mumbai aside, Jadeja didn’t get an opportunity to bat in the top five. In the lower middle order, he took over Dhoni’s role as CSK’s finisher, but Jadeja has expanded his range in the last few years and can be much more. CSK could instead consider using Curran in that finisher role. And Shardul Thakur could also be relied upon to clear the boundary in the slog overs.
It remains to be seen if the thumb injury Jadeja sustained during the Australia tour earlier this year has an impact on his IPL role, but there’s a strong case for the Super Kings to make better use of his batting prowess.
How about Moeen Ali as an opener?
In England’s competition-heavy T20I side, Ali is only a spare batsman and spinner. But at CSK, he could potentially play a bigger role and provide an option to fill a Watson-sized hole at the top. After all, Ali first made a name for himself as an opener, clattering a 49-ball century for Worcestershire in the Pro40 back in 2007. More recently in the T20 Blast in England in 2018, when Worcestershire won the title, and in 2019 when they were runners-up, Ali asserted himself as a robust top-order batsman.
He is no power-hitting opener like Chris Gayle or Jason Roy, but finds a way to regularly score over the top with his velvet-smooth bat swing, which makes him a useful option in the first six overs. Faf du Plessis did the job for the Super Kings in the powerplay in the UAE, but Ali’s left-hand batting and defensive offspin could serve them better this season.
In 2018, the Super Kings transformed a certain allrounder who had been batting in the middle order for the Royal Challengers Bangalore into an opener, and you know how that turned out. Three years later, will history repeat itself?
Crack the combination early
Last season CSK coach Stephen Fleming thought about promoting Curran up the order and picking Imran Tahir in the first half of the season, but Covid-related complications, the unavailability of Raina, and injuries to Ambati Rayudu and Dwayne Bravo messed with his plans. By the time CSK identified their most balanced XI for UAE, they were already out of contention for the playoffs.
Raina’s return, Robin Uthappa’s transfer from the Rajasthan Royals, and offspinner allrounder K Gowtham’s signing all offer Dhoni the Indian cushion he has been used to having with CSK sides of the past. Last season he often had only five bowling options to work with, which contributed to the side’s failings. But this year, having so many options could also leave them in a flux if they don’t figure out their XI early in the tournament.
Uthappa has said he isn’t comfortable in the middle order and has expressed his interest to open at CSK. That might mean Ruturaj Gaikwad, who showed spark at the top and also likes the ball coming onto the bat, might have to drop down to No. 3 or 4 if the Super Kings pair Ali up with Uthappa at the top.
Which brings us to the Raina question. Where does he stand in the set-up after pulling out of the entire tournament in 2020? Even if the team management welcomes him back into the XI, does he still have runs in him? He has played only five competitive games since the 2019 IPL and arrived late to CSK’s pre-season IPL camp, which began on March 8 this year.