“Football is a simple game; 22 men chase a ball for 90 minutes, and at the end, the Germans always win,” English footballer Gary Lineker once said. Indian Premier League cricket and Chennai Super Kings come very close.
Injuries, bad form, rotten luck… nothing seemingly dims the chances of M.S. Dhoni & Co. And unlike the straightjacketed Germans of yore, clothed in black and white, the men from Chennai do it with panache and more than a dash of resplendent yellow.
The five-wicket triumph in the final over the Gujarat Titans at the Narendra Modi Stadium in the wee hours of Tuesday best embodied this.
After a bad bowling and fielding performance, CSK seemed down and out as GT raked up a record 214-run total. And with just 22 needed from 15 balls to chase down the rain-shortened 171-run target (15 overs), CSK saw Mohammed Shami and Mohit bowl 13 consecutive balls without conceding a boundary.
However, ‘Rockstar’ Ravindra Jadeja clubbed Mohit Sharma for a six and four off the last two balls to bring home a fifth IPL title.
While the result wasn’t a surprise, the season was unlike any for CSK. It first had to banish the painful memories from last year when it finished ninth; Jadeja had to be successfully re-integrated after the captaincy fiasco in 2022, and there were injuries galore, including to its top players in Ben Stokes, Deepak Chahar, and even Dhoni. And in a departure from the past, it lost three of its seven league games at fortress Chepauk.
Yet CSK devised a way, learning from the tough lessons at home and turning themselves into a better-rounded side on the road. Under the umbrella leadership of Dhoni and head coach Stephen Fleming, in place since 2009, the old hands found sanctuary while the new ones blossomed.
If Jadeja returned reinvigorated, Chahar was made to feel important and given the confidence to play even at “80%”. Devon Conway and Ruturaj Gaikwad rampaged attacks at the top; Shivam Dube evolved into a reliable power-hitter; Tushar Deshpande, who had played just seven IPL matches, played 16 this edition and Matheesha Pathirana was plucked out of thin air, literally.
The way CSK brought Ajinkya Rahane back to life is a great example of top-notch man-management. When the game had seemingly moved past him, the former India skipper played 14 games, scoring 326 runs at a strike-rate of 172.49, including a crucial 13-ball 27 in the final.
“We got rid of the tag of him being the guy whom you bat around,” said Fleming. “That had hung over his head a bit too much. He wasn’t in our initial thoughts, but the win against Mumbai was one of our defining wins (seven wickets), and he was the catalyst behind that (27-ball 61). From there, he was unwavering and positive.”
The victorious season has also helped CSK identify a winning core. Ambati Rayudu, who in his last game for CSK played a neat cameo (19, 8b), will be sorely missed and the club will eventually have to prepare for Dhoni’s retirement. But with a title in the bag, CSK will look ahead with confidence.
“Winning one year and then losing your team is quite an emotional experience,” Fleming said, reminiscing the 2021 triumph and the low point of 2022. “Last year we took a bit of time, just introducing players the CSK way and getting them accustomed to the IPL. Emotionally we were a bit low. [But] this time we had energy around.”
“It is very hard to have back-to-back [success]. What you can hope to do is maximise when you have the squad, because in a year’s time, it may all change. It is something we have been in the thereabouts [of], and something that Gujarat [Titans] have also done.”