Chennai Super Kings: The IPL outliers
That, from Stephen Fleming in the post-final press conference was perhaps the line of the season, and gave a peek into one of the foundation stones of Chennai Super Kings‘ legacy in the tournament. It’s been more than three years since an ageing CSK were meant to have been left behind by the fast-moving format. But three finals and two trophies in this period has meant that cold, calculative expectations have once again been thoroughly embarrassed by the reality conjured up by this franchise.
IPL has now existed long enough for clear patterns to emerge and team philosophies to take shape. For those taking notes, Mumbai Indians can point you towards the squad they’ve assembled in the last five years, the balance they’ve achieved and the only trophy cabinet with five titles in it, as a foolproof blueprint. Most other franchises have scrambled around for a direction, some even to break their trophy duck, while MI coolly nailed cohesion like no other in this cycle.
MI’s continued ascent was further accentuated by CSK’s trajectory in the opposite direction last year, as they looked a truly spent force that was now in more trouble due to the COVID situation that extended the cycle by an extra year. But this was where CSK’s unique philosophies kicked in, dragging them back into conversations on who the most successful IPL franchise was. Mumbai Indians have the most quantifiable aspect of this debate on their side – the extra fifth title – but Friday’s outing was CSK’s ninth final out of 14, and fourth win, bringing an unexpected and unmatched consistency to the most fickle format of the sport.
With every passing season, the margins have thinned and the competition progressively increase, pushing some of the franchises to desperately reach out for the refresh button, flush down previously formulated strategies and look for a new start in their quest for glory. While squads have been rebuilt, changes have also occured right at the top with coaches and their accompanying ideas making way for something new.
Though MI have had three different title-winning coaches in Anil Kumble, Ricky Ponting and Mahela Jayawardene, this approach hasn’t quite worked out for the rest. It also further established the benefits of CSK’s abstinence from such reactions. It must be said that their track record of making it to the knockouts in almost every season they’ve played in hasn’t warranted that, but the lows of 2020 could’ve easily veered them away from type. But it didn’t, and this fourth title comes as the perfect vindication for not going down a slippery slope, and upholding the CSK wayof doing things.
“We have things we believe in and we pick players who we feel will fill roles. We’ve got some outstanding leaders and experienced players, and that helps sort of create an environment that is very calm,” Fleming said after his team’s title win, without giving too much away about what separates them from the rest in the league.
Albie Morkel, the former South African who was a crucial part of CSK’s first phase of success in 2010, 2011 and 2012, provided a deeper insight into the inner-workings of the only franchise whose captain and coach have been associated with them in every season.
“I think he [Fleming] has got a very good working relationship with MS Dhoni, where Dhoni spends his time and energies on the tactical side of the game while Fleming has got a fantastic way of dealing with his players. He’s a very good man-manager,” Morkel told Cricbuzz. “He [Fleming] has got a lot of experience. He’s the type of player who can relate to his players. He treats everyone differently, which is a plus. His man-managing skills and the way he runs the set up just fits in with the CSK brand.”
“You’ve got Dhoni, this formidable leader and tactician and you’ve got Stephen on the other side, who knows how to manage his players and get the best out of them. They’ve got a fantastic understanding.”
Besides the continuity that CSK have got with the Dhoni-Fleming pairing, the early success under the two international stalwarts has also allowed the franchise to wear the recent criticism of age like a badge of honour.
“Experience is important, guys who’ve been there and done it before add so much. We don’t get too deep into analytics and numbers, we go with gut feel and developing relationships with players, it’s old-school but it works for us,” Fleming said.
In a high-stress environment like the IPL, teams also end up having to grapple with potential lose-lose situations. Striking a balance between offering chances and finding the right solutions on the pitch has the potential to decide titles and patience has usually been in short supply among think-tanks. But CSK have been deliberately and unabashedly conservative with their approach in this regard.
“You give a player a chance and you back them to a point where they’re either out of form or injured or someone else gets an opportunity. We’re really conservative with that, and that’s by plan and by design, not by chance. That’s one of the key aspects of CSK and what we look to do,” Fleming reckoned.
CSK backed Shane Watson through a rut, which eventually eked out a title-winning performance in the 2018 final. This season, they can look back on their unwavering faith in Ruturaj Gaikwad amidst a slow start as one of the big reasons for their success. Ruturaj went from scores of 5(8), 5(16) and 10(13) to a season tally of 635 runs that shaped CSK’s title run. They had another experienced opener in Robin Uthappa to fill in straightaway, but he stayed put on the bench until Suresh Raina needed to be replaced due to injury.
The treatment of Moeen Ali – who smashed 37 off 20 to thwart KKR’s hopes of a comeback after Uthappa’s exit in the final – too is a fine example of CSK’s man-management skills. The Englishman admitted he could’ve easily been dropped in the run-in to the final after his batting returns took a nosedive since arriving in UAE. But CSK’s perseverance paid off once again.
With the big auction coming up in a few months, squads are set for another massive transformation process. But between Dhoni’s coy response about his future, and Fleming’s intentions to uphold the team’s legacy in the next chapter, CSK are primed to remain the IPL outliers.