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Chennai Super Kings (CSK) lost their third match of the Indian Premier League 2022 season against Punjab Kings by 54 runs on Sunday. This is the first time in 13 seasons that CSK failed to register a win after three games. So, what is happening at CSK? Why are they struggling? Is Jadeja crumbling under pressure?
To begin with, every story needs a context and CSK having a poor start needs to be compared with the 2020 season– the only season where CSK failed to make the playoffs. A new playing style was adopted by CSK post-2020 and that tells us why CSK is behind so far in this year’s IPL.
What happened in 2020?
CSK’s poor season coincided with MS Dhoni’s poor season in 2020. Dhoni ended that tiring campaign without even a single half-century to his name. Head coach Stephen Fleming and co. tried to put up a brave face and defended the inclusion of Kedar Jadhav at No 6, aging Shane Watson at the top and not replacing the likes of Suresh Raina and Harbhajan Singh (both had pulled out of that IPL). As a result of this, the tactics became too rigid. Pace-friendly conditions put the brakes on a made for spin-friendly conditions in Chepauk. And Murali Vijay had the worst season as an opener in yellow.
The only bright spot was the emergence of Rituraj Gaikwad (who went on to claim the orange cap a year later) and the all-round performance of Sam Curran. But it was the injuries to consistent players like Rayudu, Faf and Bravo that derailed the entire campaign.
That 2020 season hurt. But it brought an end to a rigid, set template of how the team was formed and how they played the game. CSK won three and lost five finals with the above-mentioned template
After 2020, CSK tossed aside its tried and tested methods. A squad assembled pre-2020 had a solid Indian core capable of delivering consistent performances now and then. But as MS Dhoni aged so did the rest of CSK core
So tactical changes made in the boardrooms of Dubai and Abu Dhabi in 2020 are related to the current sluggish start CSK is enduring at the moment. After 2020, CSK tossed aside its tried and tested methods. A squad assembled pre-2020 had a solid Indian core capable of delivering consistent performances now and then. But as MS Dhoni aged so did the rest of CSK core. And performances dipped so a new template was carved out.
CSK paired one foreign opener with Indian batter. In Faf-Gaikwad, the South African was the enforcer and Gaikwad held the innings together. At 3, Moeen Ali would improve run-rate in middle overs and Rayudu and Uthappa played the destructive no 4,5 role. Jadeja grew as a player and began finishing the games for CSK. Josh Hazelwood played the second fiddle to powerplay bowler Deepak Chahar. Don’t forget Shardul Thakur, the man who was having the purplest of purple patches in 2021.
Add to all this the experience of MS Dhoni and DJ Bravo, who was tasked with bowling at the back end of the innings. This template — or the formation of a playing 11 — brought balance to the side so that even a 10-man could be stable without any weak points. Experience and calmness ran through the core of this team.
What is happening now?
But now, in a transition period when MS Dhoni is no longer calling the (all the) shots and captain Jadeja is nervously learning the trade of managing a T20 side, the loopholes are clearly evident. Further, as the auction took away some experienced names away from CSK, an immediate failure was always around the corner.
To put it simply, injury to Deepak Chahar — their most expensive buy (Rs 14 cr) of the auction — completely derailed the balance of this side. Faf and Hazelwood (two guaranteed starters in the previous campaign) joined RCB and Thakur went to DC
Take one cog out of CSK machine and suddenly there is chaos. Take four and there is mayhem.
Let us take a look at how this was evident in three games CSK played so far.
Typically, CSK never change their template. They just replace the players they lost. In the first game against KKR, Devon Conway came in place of Faf and the absence of Moeen Ali left a gaping hole in the middle overs. With Chahar unavailable, CSK played Tushar Deshpande.
The result: Conway went early scoring 3(4), Uthappa and Rayudu struggled to improve the run rate in the absence of Moeen Ali, and CSK could not pick up early wickets in the absence of Chahar. With a bit of MS magic, they reached below-par 131, which was easily chased down by KKR.
In the second game against Lucknow Super Giants, they dropped Conway to add more pace and experience to their bowling. Moeen was back. But for the first time, CSK, known to give chances to their players, changed the template. An overseas batter-Indian batter pairing was disturbed to add more depth to bowling. It didn’t matter though because CSK scored 210 in 20 overs. Middle over enforcer Moeen Ali destroyed the spin attack in a batter-friendly pitch.
CSK replaced Chahar, Thakur, and Hazelwood with Deshpande, Mukesh Choudhary, and Pretorius, trying to maintain that set ‘bowling template’. But it didn’t work. They lost the game by six wickets. Defending 200 would have been a cakewalk for CSK if they had Chahar’s powerplay prowess.
In the third game, they tried to adjust this balance again by bringing in Jordan for inexperienced Deshpande. But the batting failed. The team, as expected during the initial stages of the IPL, is seeing a lot of flux. Players are in and out. A team needs balance to begin a campaign on the front foot. With new players, a new captain and new conditions, they are struggling.
In 13 seasons CSK has used only 86 players in total. Compare that to RCB or Punjab which used 148 and 139 players respectively. The absence of one player coupled with the departure of experienced pros suddenly brought turbulence to the CSK squad. And Dhoni is no longer at the helm to work his brain and change the game with his Midas touch.
Dhoni will not pull Jadeja out of this. Jadeja has to emerge from the other side, battered and bruised but wise.
Baptism by fire
Even when the rigid template is failing, MS Dhoni was right in one aspect. His decision to hand over the reins to Jadeja at the beginning of a new IPL cycle with a new squad is the right way to manage a transition. Jadeja will have this season to understand and make this team his own.
Jadeja will have MS for guidance and support until he hangs his gloves and takes on mentorship. So the template (a successful one) is here to stay for good or for bad. Jadeja has to work around it. It is baptism by fire for Jadeja.
CSK might eventually find the right balance as the season goes on. For now, captain Jadeja has to back himself in tough times.
Dhoni will not pull him out of this. Jadeja has to emerge from the other side, battered and bruised but wise.
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