When the Chennai Super Kings didn’t qualify for the Indian Premier League playoffs last season, it would have been easy to lose the faith. They could have chopped and changed. They could have wanted to try something new. They could have gone shopping for ‘big’ players. But that is not what skipper Mahendra Singh Dhoni and coach Stephen Fleming did. Rather than panic, they doubled back and stayed true to their core set of beliefs.
“We’ll come back strong. That’s what we’re known for,” Dhoni had then said after CSK finished IPL 2020 with six wins in 14 games. True to his word, they have.
Some changes were made too but the CSK side that beat the Kolkata Knight Riders in the final of IPL 2021 had all the attributes we have come to accept from Chennai over the years: calm under pressure, senior pros doing their assigned duties and youngsters coming in and playing important roles. It is a mix that has made them the most consistent side in the notoriously unpredictable format that is Twenty20.
In a way, CSK’s method of functioning is as old school as it gets. Where other teams will rely on data and matchups to dictate how they go about things (for eg: RCB not using Shahbaz Ahmed in Qualifier 1 against KKR), CSK leaves the final decision to the players on the field.
“We’ve had a number of finals, but getting across the line is a challenge you want to conquer,” said Stephen Fleming, the title-winning CSK coach. “There was criticism about the age of our squad but it’s rewarding to finish the four-year cycle with the trophy. 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’s works for us.”
And that street-smartness is what makes CSK so dangerous. The opposition knows what they are getting into but Dhoni and Co keep tweaking things just enough to keep them off balance. It is a difficult skill to master but no one does it better than CSK. It is their USP and few others can come close to replicating their patterns.
“Coming to CSK, we shuffled players,” said Dhoni after the win. “We had match winners coming game after game and doing really well.”
But at every point, Dhoni and the team management were constantly communicating with everyone in the squad. Not just at the start of the season but throughout the season and that is what enables players like Moeen Ali and Robin Uthappa to come in and make telling contributions. Even when you are on the outside, you feel like you are on the inside.
“Extremely grateful, feels amazing to be a part of the side. After a lean season last year, it was important for us to come back. I’ve just wanted to come in and contribute to the team’s success,” said the 35-year-old Robin Uthappa, who came to the party for CSK in the playoffs.
Uthappa added: “I’ve voiced over and over again that in this team, there’s secure atmosphere, lot of communication between players and support staff. I believe it’s the players who aren’t playing in the XI that make the atmosphere within the group.”
Dhoni does his bit but at CSK everyone knows they have a role to play and you are expected to follow through as professionally as possible. From time to time, some feedback will be shared and you need to take it all in. Take the case of Ruturaj Gaikwad — the Orange Cap winner this season — who still remembers the chat he had with Dhoni in 2020.
“Dhoni told me to enjoy my cricket and not think about the result… just enjoy the atmosphere, be calm, and once I got my eye in he was confident that I’d be able to make an impact,” the Maharashtra batsman told the CSK website before the start of IPL 2021. “I think it was a good reminder for me because all I was looking for was the result and not thinking about the process. So it helped me a lot coming from him.”
Dhoni’s words are gold. Everyone knows that and people in the CSK setup know that they are privileged to have the opportunity to soak it all in… if they are willing. But that doesn’t mean Dhoni is always in your ear. In the lead-up to the final, the CSK skipper left his team-mates alone.
“Frankly no chats, we don’t talk a lot [meetings],” said Dhoni. “It’s more one-on-one, our practice sessions are meeting sessions. The moment you get into a team room, it brings about different pressure.”
It is just a different way of doing things. There are harsh words, of course, but the grounded nature of the team means that they are also looking to understand if you have a valid enough explanation. It is an approach that looks to bring the absolute best out of every individual in the team setup.
From Faf du Plessis to every other player in the team, the core component is belief; belief not just in their own talent but also in CSK’s method. You truly become one with the team and that is what makes CSK’s team culture one that raises champions year after year.
For now, CSK and their legion of fans will enjoy this win, they’ll soak it in because it seems even sweeter than usual given what happened last season.
Dhoni might be around for just a little while longer but his team will rest easy in the knowledge that he will do what is right for the team for such is the bond that is shared – CSK, to him, isn’t just a team, it is an emotion and a pretty sweet one at that.