Is age finally catching up with the CSK team?

Dhoni
BCCI
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For many reasons, this Indian Premier League (IPL) season feels like out-of-character for the Chennai Super Kings (CSK). The serial winners that they are, this year’s IPL has given us a clear indication yet, that the presence of the core players – most of them on the wrong side of the 30s – is starting to hurt them.

After the ten-run loss against Kolkata Knight Riders on Wednesday, MS Dhoni was in no mood to hide the deficiencies of his side. Chennai Super Kings probably will rue the period between overs 11 and 14 where they scored just 14. Faf du Plessis and Shane Watson had given a side a brisk start and despite the wicket of the former, Ambati Raydu and Watson did well to keep the side in the hunt.

With four losses in six games, CSK will now hope to string a series of wins to stay “within touching distance” of other teams. They will now take on Royal Challengers Bangalore in Dubai on October 10.

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For a tournament as fickle as the IPL, momentum plays a big part, and given the busy scheduling, CSK would do well to turn around their wobbly form.

Worrying times: Kedar Jadhav has been woefully out of form. Photo credit: BCCI

CSK and the core team

What worked for CSK last season was that they had a team which knew what had to be done and when. Players like MS Dhoni, Faf du Plessis, Suresh Raina, Ravindra Jadeja, Dwayne Bravo and Shane Watson have very well defined roles in the set-up and they will be expected to perform the same this time as well. From rechristening MS Dhoni as Thala to giving the fans their favourite ‘Whistle Podu’ chant, CSK has been at the forefront of creating a niche identity for IPL teams, which has resulted in the cult following of the franchise.

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The popular franchise depends heavily on their core and some of the key members of that core have not had any international exposure due to retirement or being dropped from the national side. Raina, Bravo and Watson have not played international cricket in the run-up and their fitness could also be a worry. Both Bravo and Watson play in international T20 leagues but that is sporadic.

IPL is a long tournament and injury can happen to anyone at any point in the season. There is also the issue of workload management that’s where Dhoni and Fleming have been found wanting. They lack squad depth, and the withdrawals of experienced campaigners Suresh Raina and Harbhajan Singh has hurt them.

At the beginning of the tournament, the Super Kings were ridiculed. A lot. Some called them the “senior citizens.” Others named them “daddy army.” And why wouldn’t they? The average age of the team is above 30. Jokes were made and people on social media had a field day gathering likes and retweets.

During the auction in December, Chennai Super Kings decided to retain the core of the team. MS Dhoni (39), Suresh Raina (34) and Ravindra Jadeja (31). Later, they signed Shane Watson (38), Ambati Rayudu (34), Harbhajan Singh (39) and Dwayne Bravo (36), all of whom set the core of the team. An astonishing average age of 35.

CSK and Dhoni

MS Dhoni’s leadership was always central to CSK’s success. He has always had a big say during the auctions and team-composition meetings. Ambati Rayudu has played most of his IPL career in the middle order for Mumbai Indians. But shifting him to the opening slot was a classic MS Dhoni move – backing the strengths of your personnel. Dhoni trusted Rayudu’s skills against pace and against spin.

Similarly, Deepak Chahar impressed Dhoni during his time at Rising Pune Supergiants where CSK were suspended for two years, and while Dhoni could only watch him being under-utilised by Steven Smith, he wasted no opportunity in investing in the youngster at CSK.

The team is more or less the same as it was in 2018 when they won their third title. It still has too many spin bowlers and lacks a fast bowling attack. Yes, UAE is known for its spin pitches, but the quality pace is necessary to tackle the likes of Virat Kohli and Steve Smith who are just too good with spin. With Jadeja and Jadhav making it into playing XI, there will be only one spot left.

The form of key personnel is a big cause of worry for Dhoni and Fleming. While CSK’s middle order has failed to kick on so far, their bowlers have done a decent job. Given all the practicalities, reaching the playoffs with a weary, ageing group could be treated as an achievement parallel to their title-winning exploits in 2018.

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