When Suresh Raina pulled out of IPL 2020 due to personal reasons, it was a big blow to Chennai Super Kings. After all, ‘Chinna Thala’ as Raina is known, has been an integral part of their success. One of the few left-handers in the line-up and a player who has earned the trust of skipper Mahendra Singh Dhoni.
The Raina blow became a double whammy when it was announced a few days later that the experienced Harbhajan Singh has also pulled out due to personal reasons. The off-spinner, the only recognised one in their squad, has been an important role-player for CSK and was expected to feature even more prominently on the slow, spinning tracks in the UAE. And once again, he was a bowler Dhoni trusted.
If a team loses two experienced players just before the start of the season, it would generally induce some panic. But the manner in which CSK seems to have handled the mini-crisis so far is mainly due to two things: experience and Dhoni.
The experienced veterans in the CSK squad know what it is like to be in such a situation. They have all seen last-minute pullouts due to injury or other issues and as a result, they all almost instinctively realise they need to get on with the game.
A younger, less-experienced squad might have questioned its ability to go the distance, but the veterans know that they should rather look for a solution than start procrastinating.
The connect that the senior CSK members have with the younger lot (there are a few, yes) also makes a difference. The team management has managed to keep the core group together for a while now and that also means there is a certain amount of trust that has developed among the members.
Made by Dhoni
But you could sense that the man keeping it all together is undoubtedly Dhoni. Whether it is team owner N Srinivasan backing his captain to make the right calls or the fans trusting their leader, there is always the feeling that the CSK skipper will pull something out of the bag once again.
Over the years, we’ve seen Dhoni make the most of the talent at his disposal. So much so that many of these unheralded players have gone on to play for India (even if briefly) after making their mark in CSK colours.
Ravindra Jadeja, who accounted for 15 wickets in 16 matches at an average of 22.86 and economy rate of 6.35 last season, is one such player. In 2010, his career seemed to be in jeopardy because of a one-year ban arising from contractual irregularities but CSK and Dhoni gave him a chance and he hasn’t looked back.
Ambati Rayudu had done pretty decently for the Mumbai Indians but it was at CSK that he truly found his groove in 2018, scoring 602 runs at a strike-rate of 149.75. Pacer Mohit Sharma similarly saw his graph rise and the same is true of players like Manpreet Gony, Shadab Jakati as well.
Among the current players, swing bowler Deepak Chahar has benefitted the most from having Dhoni behind the stumps and even Shardul Thakur seemed to raise his game a few notches.
The old/new rabbits
The question perhaps on the mind of most CSK fans is who is most likely to be their new hero this season. You never know, Dhoni could even inspire experienced players like Piyush Chawla or Murali Vijay to come up with something special this year.
There are a few unknowns like Ruturaj Gaikwad and R Sai Kishore but CSK usually like to stick to their horses over the course of the season. In the past, Harbhajan has spoken about how Dhoni and coach Stephen Fleming let each member of the team know what is expected of them even before the season begins.
In the days since the two star names have pulled out, no announcements have been made (yet) by CSK about replacements. This, when almost every other franchise announced a replacement player while making a passing mention of the one they are missing out on.
CSK have gone about their business, going by the evidence of what we have seen on their social media platforms. If there is any sort of panic at all, it has clearly not been made public.
Then again, Dhoni’s calm may just mean that CSK are indeed looking for internal solutions to the problems that the absences of Raina and Harbhajan present. The former India skipper will draw on all his experience to eke out another good league phase for his team.
That might mean digging into the reserves of the squad and assigning new, match-specific roles. We will have to just wait and see. It might not translate into another phenomenal season but as things stand, the franchise is mirroring the traits of its leader.
With just a few days left for the first match of IPL 2020 against arch-rivals Mumbai Indians, it will be interesting to see just how CSK will surprise their opponents. It will be a different season for many reasons but in some ways, Dhoni will strive to keep it by his playbook.