How CSK have emerged as contenders, again
Dhoni's team will need to keep their head down to secure a playoff berth first but they have given themselves the best chance of doing that.
A lot has changed in the Indian Premier League over the years but what remains a familiar sight is Chennai Super Kings at the top of the table. Mahendra Singh Dhoni and Co began IPL 2023 with a loss but won five of their next six games to become the first team to get to 10 points.
At the halfway mark of the league stage, CSK has hit the most number of sixes (73), registered the highest team total (235/4 vs KKR), been the only side to score 210-plus totals thrice, and were second on the list of most wickets taken (49, one behind RCB).
Heading into the season, the four-time champions didn’t look like the strongest team on paper. To make matters worse, England’s star-allrounder Ben Stokes, their most expensive player at ₹16.25 crore, was sidelined with injury after two matches. New Zealand’s Kyle Jamieson, too, had been ruled out before the tournament started.
Despite all their limitations, though, CSK have yet again managed to emerge as strong contenders for the title. As has often been the case in his storied career, Dhoni has found match-winners when not many expected him to. Be it the batters, spinners or pacers – every department has stepped up under pressure, leaving Chennai looking like a well-oiled machine with half the season left.
At the top of the order, Ruturaj Gaikwad and Devon Conway have been consistent and feature among the top six run-getters of the tournament. The right-left combination has provided a number of quick starts, with both batters having strike-rates of over 140.
However, it’s the two slots after the openers where CSK have found their game-changers. Shivam Dube has batted in the top four on five occasions, while Ajinkya Rahane has owned the No. 3 spot once he was brought in after missing the first two games. Before this season began, it would’ve been bold to predict that Rahane and Dube could form the backbone of a batting order. But with 393 runs, four half-centuries and 52 boundaries between them, they’ve done just that.
Rahane’s form, in particular, has been an absolute revelation. Not much had been going his way as he got to play just 18 games over the last three IPL seasons and lost his spot on the Test side too. But with a refreshing, ultra-aggressive and often breathtaking approach, the 34-year-old has emerged as one of the main attractions this season.
“Still feel my best is yet to come,” said Rahane after CSK’s win over KKR. “The turning point for me is the fact that I’m getting to play here. How can you showcase the shots you have if you don’t get to play? I was very happy when CSK picked me, one gets to learn a lot playing under Mahi bhai (Dhoni). I feel my preparation was always good, I would try to improve and develop new shots. And now that CSK is giving me opportunities, I’m able to show what I’m capable of.”
Reflecting on Rahane’s form, Dhoni added: “When you realise someone’s potential, you let them bat the way they bat. Give them that liberty and just reiterate that these are your strong areas. You just have to tell them to be positive and enjoy it. The second thing is to give them the best position to score runs.”
In the bowling department too, CSK have found match-winners from some unlikely sources. While seasoned campaigners like Ravindra Jadeja and Moeen Ali have been among the wickets, the likes of Tushar Deshpande, Akash Singh, Matheesha Pathirana and Maheesh Theekshana have also played crucial roles.
Mumbai’s Despande has been expensive but is joint-third on the list of highest wicket-takers (12), just two behind Rashid Khan. Pathirana, meanwhile, has been economical and proven to be a real asset at the death with his variations and Malinga-esque action.
Of course, a lot of the credit for CSK’s impressive run goes to Dhoni. The 41-year-old bats way down the order now (still maintaining a strike-rate of 196.77), but it’s his brilliance as wicket-keeper and leader that remains invaluable to the franchise. All these years later, his knack for bringing out the best in his players continues to be awe-inspiring.
Sample this: Chennai bowled five no balls in the first two matches this season, prompting Dhoni to say the bowlers will have to keep the extras in check else they’ll be playing under a new captain. In the five matches since, they haven’t bowled a single no ball.
There’s still a long way to go and CSK will need to keep their head down to secure a playoff berth first. But history will tell you that they’re a tough team to stop once they get on a roll. They have a number of in-form players in their ranks and with Dhoni looking as determined as ever, we could be left with another familiar sight at the end of the tournament.