Long in the Australian summer of 2012, MS Dhoni had advocated the need of fresh legs on the field, above simply the skills with bat and ball or even the experience that comes with it. More than half a decade later, he has different ideas to take forward Chennai Super Kings’ legacy. And unlike the 50-over format in which he had professed this thought earlier, he now believes that even in Twenty20 – conventionally seen as a young man’s game – battled-hardened experience is priceless, something that outweighs the energy of the youth.
This is not to say the CSK carry too many liabilities on the field. Even in post-30s, the likes of Ravindra Jadeja, Faf du Plessis, Suresh Raina and Dwayne Bravo are among the fitter figures in the game.
The ‘there is nothing like experience’ philosophy in T20 cricket is on a trial. If it works, it could be a game-changer, but if it doesn’t, do CSK have a Plan B?
“There’s always a Plan B,” CSK head coach Stephen Fleming admitted but added, “The notion that we bought an old side on day one of the auction was right. Day two was filled with a lot of young players. I value experience, we always have and if the professional players are in shape and performing well, I think they’re a valuable asset.
“Not often do you see young players come out and make a mark,” Fleming added, elaborating the logic behind CSK think-tank’s decision. “People talk a lot about it but very rarely do young players shoot the lights out. I’m not sure when a young player came out and was the top run-scorer. Rashid Khan and Washington Sundar – you get some exceptions, but there’s only a handful whereas experienced players play major parts in the whole tournament. That’s why I value experience.
“There’s also about the quality of player, like Bravo is still competing well, Watson’s competing well, Harbhajan has a great skillset, Dhoni is a fine leader. So the players we’ve picked, I don’t think they’re spent by any means. It’s a year by year proposition and this year I think they look very good.”
Fleming may have a point to prove. Often it is the experienced players who finish as the top run-getters and wicket-takers in major T20 tournaments, yet the smaller-but-effective contributions – the runs saved on the field, the additional runs taken while running between wickets or even the quickfire 8 to 10-ball cameos – are possibly overlooked. And starting Saturday (April 7), it remains to be seen as to how much of an impact do the lack of fresher legs make to a T20 team.
That isn’t the sole unconventional tactic CSK have gone in with this season. The other big decision they have taken is to have spinning tracks prepared at their home venue and beef up their squad with spinners. Even as spinners were the punching bags in the earlier stages of the format, it was soon established that they can be mean weapons. But pacers equipped with skills and tactics remain ever so effective. While CSK have all the variety to ace the deal at home, they can find themselves a little out of sorts away. And possibly at no venue better than Wankhede Stadium.
“We’ve also got the pace options that can accommodate this kind of a challenge,” Fleming said. “Lungi Ngidi and Mark Wood – both are good. Shane Watson is still very good with the new ball. Dwayne Bravo is very canny. And the other guys can still bowl. Even if there’s not excessive turn. So we’re just looking for smarter technique and stack up in all different scenarios. It’s not just (about) being spin-friendly as indicated, we’ve also got seam bowlers whom we also think can do a pretty good job.”
While Fleming may have sounded optimistic about his team’s pace attack, there are still severe limitations they have to deal with. And unlike Mumbai Indians, they haven’t been known for placing their bets heavily on little-known faces. Unless they opt for a change in strategy, Shardul Thakur remains their only Indian pacer. Apart from Dwayne Bravo and Shane Watson, who are expected to play a key role for them this season, Lungisani Ngidi and Mark Wood are their only frontline foreign pace bowlers. And with both of them having arrived only yesterday from their respective international assignments, fatigue factor aside, even CSK are still unsure on how to fit them in their plans.
“There’s still a lot of aspects of our team that warrant further discussion, it was always going to be the case right up to the night before,” he said. “There’s people we’re meeting for the first time, and now we’ve to try and incorporate that and our overall strategy. So there’s still little bit of work to do on that.”
Fleming has displayed a positive intent ahead of Super Kings’ return to IPL but in Mumbai, and in Mumbai Indians, they could be served the severest test of their grand ploy.
“(It is a) great rivalry (with Mumbai Indians) and this is what the competition needs. We couldn’t ask for a better game to start with. A game of this intensity at this ground is always a thrill. The players are excited about it. It is hard to win here, just as we are hard to beat at Chennai and that’s an aspect of successful teams, they defend their home patch well. Great challenge for us to start, wouldn’t have wanted it any other way.”
Much like Mumbai Indians, CSK too have a few key players either injured or jaded with their recently-concluded international assignments. The combinations are yet to be fixed, and it might take a few games for them to establish the ploy they wish to execute, but the IPL opener should give them a fair idea of what they have to play with.