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Chennai Super Kings: What, if not Box-Office?

By the time CSK finished serving their two-year ban in 2018, the IPL was supposed to have passed them by. Teams had started to pay closer attention to details when it came to recruiting, keeping a keen eye on potential future stars to secure on the cheap.

Match-ups became the buzzword, and a general notion that young and mobile players are likely to hold the trophy aloft began to permeate. CSK were chastised for being neither, and most of the pre-season verdicts served the death knell on their supposed outdated approach and an over-the-hill personnel.

But then, what are CSK, if not Box-Office.Conventional wisdom-busting Box-Office.

Two years on, as CSK attack another campaign with largely the same core, there’s a sense of mysticism about their skipper. Dhoni hasn’t played a game since India’s semifinal exit in the 50-over World Cup last year, and chose to be incommunicado about his India future for the majority of 2020. The pandemic, and the postponement of the men’s T20 World Cup eventually brought clarity of thought in that direction, but it remains unclear what he can and can’t pull off on the field for CSK after more than 12 months of inactivity.

Within the group whose average age has now risen to 31, there was early admission about the need for adequate practice time before going into a season straight from a lockdown situation. They arrived in UAE with the hope of hitting the ground running, but instead found themselves in a vortex of chaos. Suresh Raina left due to ‘personal reasons’, Harbhajan Singh opted not to travel and members within CSK’s bubble tested positive for the dreaded virus.

For all practical purposes, IPL 2020 began way before teams set foot in UAE. Franchises had to carefully manoeuvre past all the logistical landmines involved in moving bases and then make sure not to breach the very delicate concept of a bio-bubble. Covid-19 could’ve affected absolutely any team, but CSK have been hit the hardest.

The three-time winners are also at the end of their squad cycle, without the guarantee of a mega auction next year. They’ve had a tough initiation in UAE, and a delayed start to training. Signs are once again ominous, and the expectations are reset to bare minimum.

What’s their best eleven and why?

Likely XI: Shane Watson, Faf du Plessis, Ambati Rayudu, MS Dhoni, Kedar Jadhav, Dwayne Bravo, Ravindra Jadeja, Piyush Chawla, Imran Tahir, Deepak Chahar, Shardul Thakur

With Suresh Raina missing, CSK will need to pack in all the experience they can at the top of the order through Shane Watson and Faf du Plessis. Imran Tahir and Dwayne Bravo are also horses for courses in UAE. Should the need arise to turn to the all-round services of Sam Curran or a foreign pacer in Lungi Ngidi, Watson might have to make way for the 23-year-old Ruturaj Gaikwad (after he surpasses the covid-19 hurdle) to free up one overseas slot. With 419 runs, Gaikwad finished second only to Devdutt Padikkal in the Syed Mushtaq Ali Trophy run charts in the 2019-20 season.

In the absence of Harbhajan Singh, Piyush Chawla brings experience at the other end of the line-up. But, the young Tamil Nadu spinner R Sai Kishore might be a better fit if Dhoni is particularly looking to replace Harbhajan’s PowerPlay impact.

What works to their advantage?

A bowling attack good enough to kill games before it moves into the high-risk, high-reward territory of death overs.

In the last two seasons, CSK’s spinners have picked the most number of wickets (90) at a better average (22.99) and strike rate (18.9) than any other side. Even without Harbhajan, Dhoni has enough spin bowling riches at his disposal to dictate terms in conditions that will feel like home. Before it even gets to a spin choke in the middle-overs, CSK have the quality to make multiple inroads via Deepak Chahar, who has picked 25 wickets in the PowerPlay across the last two seasons.

What doesn’t work to their advantage?

Their flimsy batting. CSK were slow starters in IPL 2019 with the worst PP run rate of 6.44, and lost as many as 30 wickets in the period. Raina’s loss doesn’t just hit them in terms of runs, but also takes away the one left-hander in the top-order that could’ve potentially negated the tried-and-tested wrist spin route that every team now swears by. Strike rates of the top five batsmen against spin isn’t something to write home about either.

Is there an opportunity?

IPL’s move to UAE could yet inject life into CSK’s title aspirations. Dhoni can summon all his leadership smarts to offset CSK’s blatant batting limitations with bowling masterclasses. With so many matches spread across just three venues, deteriorating pitches and smaller totals are only going to play into Dhoni and CSK’s hands in the business end of the tournament.

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