Whether they win or lose, CSK is always a team in the spotlight. In the beginning, it was MS Dhoni who drew attention to the team.
The surprise bonus for CSK fans (who, by my estimate, are the most emotionally volatile fans in IPL) was the tremendous commitment Dhoni gave in return.
In his long and storied career as a cricketer, Dhoni built a reputation for enduring the most testing of times with complete emotional control. Yet, the only two instances I can think of where Dhoni has shown emotions have both come with CSK.
In the documentary on CSK, The Lion Roars, he is seen talking to his team before the start of their comeback IPL year.
He begins his speech and then suddenly stops talking. He is in tears. He needs to take a break to gather himself before he could resume his talk.
Can you imagine that? Dhoni in tears? That’s how much CSK has meant to him, and how fortunate are CSK for this?
The second instance was when Dhoni walked onto the field to dispute an umpire’s flip flop on a no-ball in 2018 against RR. I was watching that live and could not believe my eyes.
So what happened to CSK this year? It’s absolutely crucial for CSK’s future that they ask the right questions of themselves and try and answer them honestly.
Was this an aberration? A freak result like Roger Federer getting beaten in the early rounds of a Grand Slam?
Many commentators, including me, had predicted that this could be a bad season for CSK.
Gautam Gambhir was the bravest amongst us, saying that CSK will not make the playoffs this year. I gave myself a buffer. I said, “they might make the playoffs or would have their worst ever season”. My reason for keeping a buffer was simply because of Dhoni, thinking that he would find a way to make magic happen again, even with this team.
By “this team” I mean the fulcrum of the squad, that’s made up (like in the previous two years) of ageing men well beyond their prime and some out of international cricket too, including the captain.
The perfect analogy for this would be a bowler having bowled three good overs and the captain gets tempted to bowl him one more, but the bowler is no Rashid Khan, so he goes for 25 runs and the game is lost.
Dhoni took his gamble a bit too far, a year too far.
Now let us get to the cold facts. It took CSK four games to realise that the UAE pitches in the first half were not like Chennai, where Dhoni could just play his five bowlers and his spinners would bowl their quota for nothing.
CSK lost those games, where the morale of a team gets built, because they only had five bowling options. This meant that Dhoni had to give someone like Jadeja his full four overs even when he was going at 10-11 runs an over. Add to that the ageing batsmen who were still taking time to get the rust off, and you have the makings of a difficult season.
But what really surprised was that Dhoni did not look like he was in peak physical fitness. Shane Watson looked the same.
Rahul Dravid told me that he could continue to excel at the highest level even as he got older because he spent a lot of time getting lighter and stronger. This is an absolute must when your hand-eye coordination is getting worse every year.
In my pre-IPL prediction it was Dhoni’s failures with the bat that I had not anticipated. It may have to do with his fitness.
Amongst the other veterans, Ambati Rayudu looked unchanged from the fitness aspect, and perhaps that is why his batting was intact and had not diminished significantly like the others.
No doubt, Dhoni and CSK will address the glaring issues of this season. It’s easy to see which players they will retain. I would think: Rituraj Gaikwad, Faf du Plessis, Ambati, Sam Curran, Deepak Chahar, Shardul Thakur, Karn Sharma and Mitchell Santner.
In the support staff, anyone who voiced his concerns about going with the same bunch of ageing players one more year, sign him up first!