A blip in the firmament: can MS Dhoni lead CSK back to former IPL glories?

In part two of our IPL preview we look at how Chennai Super Kings and Delhi Capitals face contrasting challenges over the next two months

Chennai Super Kings

What happens when Mike Tyson is pushed to the wall? What happens when Michael Schumacher starts from the last grid? What happens when Roger Federer loses the first two sets in a major? Do they give up? No, they hit harder and come back stronger. We are not expecting anything less from Chennai Super Kings. Having made the knockouts every single time since the inception of the IPL in 2008, CSK for the first time did not qualify in 2020. They will be looking to make amends straight away this year. What more motivation does a team need than giving its leader a winning farewell – not to forget though, that Dhoni has not yet announced his retirement from CSK colours – definitely not!

Recap of last year. They started well winning the opening game against Mumbai, and finished brilliantly by winning their last three, but it was too late as the damage had been done. They had lost the services of Suresh Raina and Harbhajan Singh. Their batting unit, except Faf du Plessis, never performed and their bowling was not intimidating enough. However, in a team called the Dad’s Army, there were a couple of bright spots: Sam Curran was the find of the season, performing with bat and ball in any role he was asked to play; Ruturaj Gaikwad scored three consecutive half-centuries. At least they finished above wooden spoon winners Rajasthan.

How did they fare at the 2021 auction? The most disappointed team initially as they were hoping for a mega-auction to be held this year to help them rebuild for the next ten years. However, they walked out pretty satisfied. Having released a few players ahead of auction and with Shane Watsons’ retirement, they had a budget of INR 22.9 Cr. They went all out for Glenn Maxwell but could not stave off RCB, instead ending up buying two off-spinning allrounders of good calibre: Moeen Ali and K Gowtham. Heartwarming applause filled the room when they bought Cheteshwar Pujara at his base price and they completed their purchases with domestic talents K Bhagath Varma, C Hari Nishaanth, and M Harisankar Reddy.

Strengths and weaknesses. CSK have built their core based on their home conditions at Chepauk, where, more often than not, spinners rule the roost. In the past, they had Matthew Hayden, Michael Hussey, Dwayne Smith, Shane Watson give them the impetus at the top while Suresh Raina, Dhoni, and Dwayne Bravo were good finishers. This year though they will need to identify a few power hitters at the top and hope Dhoni and Ravi Jadeja can finish the job in death overs. The majority of their matches will be played on flat tracks with small boundaries (five in Mumbai, three in Bangalore and two in Kolkatta) so they will need to post and chase scores of over 180 consistently, unlike in Chepauk, where scores of around 150 were the norm. Their strength lies in the bowling department, which has a settled look and, irrespective of the surface, capable of restricting teams. They have an excellent new-ball bowler in Deepak Chahar and three spinning allrounders in Jadeja, Moeen, and Gowtham to give them control during the middle overs. Shardul Thakur could not find a regular place last year in this CSK XI but his performance with ball and bat over the last few months for the national team should make him irreplaceable.

Key players. There is one man who has gone from strength to strength: Ravindra Jadeja – the perfect 3D player. He has always been a superb fielder and excellent bowler but what has been striking is his excellent form with the bat in recent years. CSK should leverage this form and find some room for him to bat higher up the order. Shardul Thakur is a hard nut to crack, and bowls with a lion’s heart – throw him into the game at any time and he will deliver. Moeen Ali has been in and out of the England team because of loss of form and their rotation policy but he fits perfectly into this team with his varied talents. His wristy action helps him get good turn off even the flattest surfaces – as we saw when he left Virat Kohli bemused on a highway at Pune. Sam Curran, the rising England star, is equally good with new ball and at the death. He is also handy with the bat, having been moved about the order last season. And of course, the captain himself, MS Dhoni. He may have been away from the game for a while now but his keeping skills have not waned. His captaincy is always appreciated. If only he can find his touch with the bat, especially his finishing skills, this CSK team can go all the way.

Predictions. CSK fans would like to believe that last year was just a blip in what has been a tremendous journey for them and their Yellove team. They may not get to see MSD play again at the Chepauk but would still want him to walk into the sun with an IPL Trophy firmly held in his hands. We predict them to finish in the top four and they could make the final.

Delhi Capitals

India’s capital city is represented by Delhi Capitals, but 12 years since the start of IPL, they still have not been able to get their hands on the silverware. They came so close last year but were mauled by a strong Mumbai Indians team. Well, lightning does not strike twice, so goes the saying. For the sake of Delhi Capitals though, they would want to repeat last year’s performance but finish the task this time around. Captain Shreyas Iyer picked up a shoulder injury in the recently concluded England ODI series, which meant the baton had to be passed on. Although there were many contenders, the management decided to hand over the reins to Rishabh Pant. Will he rise to this new challenge?

Recap of last year. Runners-up in 2020, DC had a terrific season, finishing second in the league stage behind Mumbai Indians. They eventually lost to Mumbai Indians in the final; in fact they lost all four games against them as they met in the play-offs as well. But they fought fire with fire against every team, winning seven of the first nine matches. They looked to be cruising into the top four but then there was a stutter. They managed to win only one of the next five and scraped into the knockouts. If not for Marcus Stoinis and Kagiso Rabada’s brilliance they would have lost both their knockout games as they seemed to have lost momentum.

How did they fare at the 2021 auction? One of the lowest purse holders in the auction – INR 12.90 Cr, Delhi had a settled team with not many gaps to fill. Interestingly, they bid for and got Steve Smith after a solitary bid by RCB. They increased their Indian bowling stocks with Umesh Yadav, Lukman Meriwala and M Siddharth. Tom Curran, a short-form specialist, was picked up for £523,000. Their smartest pick, though, was Sam Billings, an excellent finisher who can provide back-up for Shimron Hetmyer. They rounded off the day with local Indian talents Ripal Patel and Vishnu Vinod.

Strengths and weaknesses. Delhi have one of the top bowling attacks this season with the South African duo of Rabada and Anrich Nortje in their ranks. Their spin twins Ravi Ashwin and Axar Patel have fond recent memories of playing at Chennai and Ahmedabad, albeit in Tests – and Delhi play six games in those two venues. In Ishant Sharma and Umesh they have a pair of Indian seamers who can rip out top orders on their best days. Will they miss Shreyas Iyer the captain or Shreyas Iyer the batsman most? He was a vital cog in that batting line-up, around whom the rest of the batsmen could play freely and he also took the attack to the spinners in the middle overs. With him gone for the entire season they will have to rejig their batting order and hope the likes of Ajinkya Rahane and Smith can replicate Iyer’s performance.

Key players. Purple Cap holder in 2020, Kagiso Rabada’s form could determine how far the Capitals go. An accurate, genuinely quick bowler who troubles the batsmen at the top and gives no freebies at the death, consistently clocking 140-150 kph, he is a captain’s dream. His partnership with Anrich Nortje will again be crucial. New captain Rishabh Pant has had a dream run with the Indian team since getting picked for the second Test in Australia. If his bat has silenced the critics, his wicket- keeping has come on leaps and bounds. Even fast bowlers know there is a reverse hit round the corner. However, captaincy is a different challenge and if he can be even half as good as his idol – MSD – then Delhi will have a great season. Ravichandran Ashwin is another player who is going through a purple patch in Tests. Going by his recent comments, he is itching to be part of the Indian limited-overs set-up too – what better stage than the IPL to showcase his skills in the shortest format of the game. A shrewd thinking spinner, he can fox the batsmen with his guile and also bowl in the powerplay, if needed. Prithvi Shaw does not like to bat in the nets when he is out of form according to coach Ricky Ponting but after a horrendous run of low scores that cost him his India place, he punctured every bowling attack which came his way in the Vijay Hazare Trophy. If he can sustain this form, we may see new records being set. Last year’s top scorer for Delhi, Shikhar Dhawan – 618 runs at 44.14 – will have a point to prove after being dropped after the first T20I v England in the recently-concluded series.

Predictions. Not much has changed for them in terms of squad or team management since last season. However, Shreyas Iyers’ injury comes as a huge blow and this could mean increased pressure on the young shoulders of Pant. If their batting fails to click collectively, they could find themselves in the bottom four this year.