Express News Service

CHENNAI: “We will come back strong. That’s what we’re known for.” This was MS Dhoni at the end of Chennai Super Kings’ campaign last IPL, where they missed out on a play-off berth for the first time. Their fate was decided mid-way through the tournament when they had won just two of the opening 10 matches. Their batting department, also consisting of players who didn’t play regular cricket, looked out of depth. It also had aging stars. All of them were finding it hard to find form in one of the most competitive short form tournaments. They also had to deal with Covid-19 cases and fitness issues to key players as they used 19 players. The only time they looked settled was when they were already out of the race.

It was a strange season in many ways. It was one of the most tightly-fought editions — the play-offs berths were decided on the last day of the group stage, with three teams (Nos 3, 4 and 5) finishing on 14 points in the table. It meant Chennai, who finished on 12 points, could have made the cut if they had won one more game. These things tend to go unnoticed when one speaks about their long losing run during the tournament.

So when Chennai returned home, with no clarity about player auctions, and many unanswered questions, they chose to trust their process. It was a moment where many teams would have pressed the panic button and made wholesale changes. Especially considering most of their regulars were in the November of their careers.

“The board and the management had total trust in the team and captain. Everyone goes through a bad patch. We are in cricket for 30-40 years and that also makes a difference. We have seen such situations before too,” said Kasi Viswanathan, the CEO of Chennai Super Kings. “Last year was the only one where we didn’t do well and by the end of the edition, we started doing well again. We knew it was only a question of time. And this year as usual, we followed the process and are doing well.”

Process is a cliched term that teams, most notably captains use often. In MS Dhoni’s world, it is a constant. In Stephen Fleming, they have a head coach who relies on — or maybe has brought into — the process that Chennai has relied on in the past. It is something the duo don’t generally expand on and Viswanathan simplifies what happened in the drawing board. “The process is identifying roles for each player and then playing according to the situation, which we practice. For example, ahead of the UAE leg, we came to Dubai by August 13 and after a six-day quarantine, started practice in humid conditions. Our preparation for the tournament started that day itself. So we were prepared for the season. It was only a question of time before they adjusted. Last year was a rare season where we didn’t.”

With the big auction postponed, making huge changes was out of the question. But they had identified the areas that needed immediate attention. With Shane Watson retiring, they needed another overseas all-rounder who could bat up the order. They picked Moeen Ali. The encouraging performances of Ruturaj Gaikwad and the availability of all their regulars meant Chennai found the balance that went missing. This season they have used only 13 players as they are back to where they belong in the IPL – play-offs.

“We knew it was just a couple of positions that would make us a balanced side. And then it was just about creating a style of play that was going to suit us and then just absorbing it and playing it. Once we got the players — Ali was one in particular — and had our boys fit and ready to go, it was just creating an environment that was positive and making sure there was no doubt,” Fleming said.