Once again, Chennai Super Kings find themselves in a hole, not as deep as the one they burrowed into in the previous two IPL editions, still cavernous enough to warrant drastic corrective action. After a listless middle phase, Chennai registered wins on the bounce – against Rajasthan Royals and Delhi Daredevils – and need to hold it together for another couple of matches to squeeze into the qualifiers.
The games in hand are against the strong Kolkata Knight Riders, to be played at the Eden Gardens on Monday, and Kings XI Punjab, to be played at picturesque Dharamsala - the site of Chennai’s rousing 2010 win, which M.S. Dhoni and S. Badrinath engineered via a magnificent heist chasing a huge target.
Success from this tight corner will hardly be a walk in the park. KKR have performed like genuine title contenders and Punjab too have everything to play for. But Chennai have emerged unscathed from trying circumstances earlier, each time answering the call for something special with superlative performances.
Most memorably, in 2010, the current defending champions won five of their last seven games to make the cut for the knock-outs. M. Vijay and R. Ashwin were standout performers for Chennai then, as this most consistent franchise went all the way to its first IPL trophy, after having made the final and the semis in 2008 and 2009 respectively.
This season, M.S. Dhoni’s side have been relatively off-colour and are sorely missing match-winning shows from the two aforementioned. That Chennai are still in contention has a lot to do with Faf du Plessis. The South African plundered close to 400 runs (average of 35, SR of 134) in 12 games, before an illness ruled him out of recent fixtures.
Although Suresh Raina, Dwayne Bravo and Dhoni have not had a defining knock in this edition, they’ve sputtered along for their team’s cause, and all three are averaging in excess of 25 – no mean feat in this format – with half-decent strike-rates to boot.
While Dhoni’s endgame skills have appeared slightly jaded, Albie Morkel has filled in for the charismatic skipper. The South African all-rounder’s 93 runs have engineered at least two last-gasp victories for his team. His dizzying, decisive cameos have been pivotal, and it’s surprising that Albie has not been bumped up the order be allowed more time in the middle.
Another point of relative concern – especially after what we’ve come to expect following the first few seasons – is how Chennai’s slow bowlers have failed choke the opposition as is their wont. Super Kings’ dominance of the IPL – particularly home games – was centered on the expertise of Ashwin, Shadab Jakati, and even Raina, on the helpfully slow Chepauk track.
Doug Bollinger could be counted on for early breakthroughs, and then the spinners would give virtually nothing away, take wickets, and ensure that Dhoni’s reliance on the reliable formula of batting first and strangling the chase with his battery of tweakers delivered the expected result on most occasions. This season, a relaid wicket at the M.A. Chidambaram – one with slightly more grass on the surface - has meant the spinners no longer have a willing accomplice to connive with.
Even so, Ashwin has been giving away runs at below seven-an-over, Ravindra Jadeja has picked up a five-for, and only Jakati has been entirely ineffective. Thankfully, Ben Hilfenhaus, since joining the team following National duty in the West Indies, has beefed up Chennai’s attack, off-setting Bollinger’s woeful form.
With just two league matches left in hand, Chennai are left facing a situation they have come to revel in. Will they do it again? Will Vijay, who showed glimpses of form against Delhi, fire when it matters? Will du Plessis return with a bang? Will Ashwin weave his wizardry around clueless batsmen?
More importantly, will Dhoni regain his winning mojo? He has done it so many times in the past so as to transform public expectations of success into outright, unreasonable demand. Would it be asking for too much to expect him to do it all over again?