There was a reason why the 2020 edition of the Indian Premier League kicked-off with a clash between Mumbai Indians and Chennai Super Kings. They are the two most successful teams in the history of the T20 tournament and naturally, the interest level is high each time they square up.

Despite losing the IPL 2019 final to MI and trailing 11-17 in the head-to-head, CSK put in a promising performance to get the win in the opener this year. They had faced plenty of hurdles heading into the season, with Suresh Raina and Harbhajan Singh backing out and a number of players testing positive after landing in the United Arab Emirates, but the men in yellow showed they were up for the challenge by starting strong.

From that stage, one expected Mumbai and Chennai to take familiar routes. Rohit Sharma and Co almost always start slow before picking up pace rapidly, while Mahendra Singh Dhoni and his men have been steady throughout each season. But while the defending champions’ journey so far has gone according to script, CSK have had a run that absolutely no one saw coming.

At the Sharjah Cricket Stadium on Friday, Chennai Super Kings suffered their first-ever 10-wicket defeat. It was their eighth loss in 11 games which all but confirmed their exit from the tournament at the end of the league stage. In the 11 seasons they’ve competed in, this will be the first time they won’t reach the playoffs.

And the ones to hand CSK this crushing blow were none other than their great rivals Mumbai Indians. The men in blue and gold have been simply solid for the most part this season, winning seven out of their 10 games to sit atop the points table. Their players have grabbed opportunities and on Friday, it was the turn of Trent Boult to lead the way.

A new match-winner

Mumbai Indians were dealt a heavy blow leading up to this season as Lasith Malinga, the highest wicket-taker in IPL history, was ruled out. In his absence, the four-time champions placed a great deal of responsibility on Boult. And up until now, the New Zealand pacer has held his own.

Boult is third on the list of highest wicket-takers this season (16 from 10 games) and has struck in all but one match so far in the UAE. And while he had four two-fors in MI’s first nine games, the clash with CSK at Sharjah saw him take things up a notch.

The left-arm fast-bowler removed Ruturaj Gaikwad in his first over, the in-form Faf du Plessis in his second over, Ravindra Jadeja in his third over, and Sam Curran off the last ball of the innings. Jasprit Bumrah, Krunal Pandya, Rahul Chahar and Nathan Coulter-Nile all played their part in CSK managing just 114/9 in 20 overs, but Boult’s figures of 4/18 won him the player of the match award. He was fast, accurate, and showed his full range as a world-class swing bowler.

“New franchise, different personnel, it’s been exciting to be out there playing [in this global situation],” said Boult. “I think it was all pretty natural stuff – pitch the ball up. It was nice to get some assistance. I’ve been lucky to get the first over so if it’s going to swing, it’s going to be up front. The wickets are becoming a lot slower and lot drier. I think it just comes down to accuracy.”

One of the highlights for Mumbai Indians this season has been the hunger shown by their players to make a mark. Almost every player they have fielded has contributed significantly to a victory. The fact that they’re the team that has used the least number of players so far is a testament to the stability in the MI setup. But as far as CSK are concerned, there is anything but stability.

Downward spiral

After the defeat to Rajasthan Royals in their previous game, CSK coach Stephen Fleming made an interesting observation. He said that his team “may have run out of juice.”

“If you’re looking at the three-year cycle – we won the first year; lost off the last ball last year, and we always thought that the third year with an ageing squad would be difficult,” said Fleming.

Even if the CSK coach’s explanation is deemed reasonable, one can’t help but question the management’s tactics at the IPL 2020 auctions if they did anticipate a tough season.

Chennai Super Kings spent a whopping 6.75 crore on Piyush Chawla, who has taken six wickets in seven games so far, with R Sai Kishore, Sam Curran and Josh Hazlewood being the other recruits. While Raina backing out at the last moment was a considerable blow, CSK should have addressed the glaring absence of a young, top-quality Indian batsman at the auction itself. Barring Faf du Plessis, none of the pure batsmen in the squad have shown even a hint of consistency.

“It does hurt,” said Dhoni after Friday’s defeat. “What you need to see is what are the things that are going wrong. Specially this year, it hasn’t been our year. Whether you lose by eight or 10 wickets, it hardly matters. But where we are at this stage of the tournament, it does hurt.”

Indeed, Dhoni’s legion of fans too must be hurting at the moment. Despite the skipper insisting that his team is trying its best, the fact that they couldn’t pick a single MI wicket on Friday sums up their season and the lack of fight they have shown. With three games remaining, let’s hope the most consistent team in the history of the IPL can restore some of its lost pride.