At the 2019 IPL Player Auction, the Chennai Super Kings secured Ruturaj Gaikwad’s services at his base price of Rs 20 lakhs but he did not play a game in his first season.

Then, in 2020, he got a chance. He was stumped for a golden duck in his debut game and was run out after 5 off 10 balls in his second. In his third game, he got another duck. By then, the CSK season was already in shambles. So, he got another game. Suddenly, it all clicked for him – he scored three fifties in three games and became the first uncapped Indian player to hit three back-to-back half centuries in the history of tournament.

That flurry of fifties earned him the confidence of MS Dhoni and once you do that, the CSK skipper will very rarely leave you hanging. The 2021 season started almost as poorly for Gaikwad as the 2020 season – scores of 5, 5, 10 didn’t help when the experienced Robin Uthappa was calling his heels in the dugout.

But Dhoni stuck with him and now, Gaikwad is responding in kind. He kickstarted his season with a 64 against Kolkata Knight Riders and then got a 33 against Mumbai Indians. But the cherry on the cake was the classy 75 off 44 balls he made against Sunrisers Hyderabad on Wednesday night.

On the night, he started slowly… making his way to 17 off 17 balls. But he kicked into high gear with the introduction of Jagadeesha Suchith into the attack. CSK knew that taking on leg-spinner Rashid Khan would not be easy and they clearly wanted to put pressure on the other bowlers.

Suchinth’s first two overs were carted for 30 runs with Gaikwad scoring 17 off those runs. Now, feeling confident about his game, the CSK opener decided to attack Rashid as well.

The Afghan leg-spinner was dropping it a little short and Gaikwad was up to the challenge. He rocked back onto the backfoot and pulled one over midwicket for four as CSK got another fifty-plus opening stand. It was the first time they had three consecutive 50+ stands in IPL games.

Faf du Plessis had started things off but now Gaikwad took over. He doesn’t seem to try to hit the ball too hard and relies more on timing than brute force. It makes his batting easy on the eye and also means that he can adapt to different wickets quickly.

Gaikwad may not be as flashy as Prithvi Shaw or Devdutt Padikkal but he is showing that there is space for his brand of cricket too. He tends to start a little slowly but has a natural ability to find the gaps and is pretty light on his feet too.

Gaikwad went on to get his highest IPL score of 75 before being dismissed but the 129-run opening stand had put Chennai on the path to victory.

A changed Chennai

The win against SRH was Chennai’s fifth on the trot. The run of results is a far cry from the poor 2020 season that Dhoni’s team had to endure. It can be easy to oversimplify things but a poor season is never down to just one thing.

In the post-game chat, Dhoni explained: “One of the facts was, five to six months we were out of cricket [before IPL 2020]. Nothing was really allowed. It was not like you could go and practice on your own, that also makes it slightly more difficult. Then the change of venue [from India to the UAE], and you know quarantine, it was a slightly longer quarantine, people were not used to it. There were quite a few factors that could have resulted in that [poor showing].

But CSK’s players, as Gaikwad showed, have stepped up this season.

“But overall, I think to really sum it up nicely, the players have taken more responsibility this year - you will be facing adverse things but ultimately it boils down to how each and every individual rises to the occasion and does that 10% extra for the team.”

That 10% extra was noticeable not just when they batted. They were superb in the field as well, making several great stops on the boundary line and taking fine catches as well.

At the post-match press conference, CSK coach Stephen Fleming also spoke about the changes they looked to make. “It was tough in the UAE. We had a pretty bad run... but during the last part of the tournament we were really comfortable. We made some changes around our attitude towards what we were doing, and then we were really sure of what style we wanted to play going into this year’s IPL.”

Fleming added: “So we took a lot out of that, and in the off season we just looked at players that could fit and do a job - not just in Chennai but in conditions that were still a bit foreign. We needed to play a faster game, we needed to keep evolving if we were not in Chennai. And that’s what we are trying to do; we are not the finished product by any means, but we’re playing well at the moment.”

If anything, that almost sounds like a warning to the other teams. CSK this season are dangerous – they bat very deep; they bat aggressively; they have bowling options and as always, they have Dhoni at the helm to make optimum use of all the resources.

CSK have always played the smart game but this year there is that added zing to the line-up that makes things harder for the opposition. This is a team that knows how to get to the post-season and they’ll know that a couple more wins will almost get them there.