A team was compiled, in early 2018, with an average age well above 30. This in a league where the average age for the rest of the teams, at the time, was 27.5. For a format labelled, by many, for the young. In a tournament considered, undoubtedly, the toughest in the world.
That team was built, quite specifically, to capitalise on quite specific conditions at its home venue.
Chennai Super Kings played nine matches – out of 63 – at Chepauk in the 2018-2021 cycle.
They finish this cycle with two titles out of four – with a third having been but a ball away.
Their latest triumph comes after the annus horribilis that no one saw them coming back from. They’ve made it happen. Against the odds, against the data, against reason, almost.
CSK are IPL champions again.
Here’s a look at the stars who made it happen.
The ‘spark’ that lit up the season. The youngest Orange Cap-winner in IPL history. To think that at this time last year, Ruturaj Gaikwad was trying to put the most forgettable month of his cricket career behind him!
Six-hundred-plus runs in your first full season playing in the toughest league in the T20 world – Gaikwad had only played six games last year – with commendable consistency: He crossed 30 ten times in 16 innings.
He was imperious in the UAE, scoring 439 runs in nine outings, which featured some of the knocks of the season. The 101*(60) against Rajasthan Royals will live long in memory, and the significance of the one to kickstart the leg – 88*(58) against Mumbai Indians, to take CSK to 156/6 after they were effectively 24/5 at the end of the powerplay – cannot be stated enough; had CSK lost the game, MI would have drawn level with them on the points table. As it turned out, not only did it set up the Super Kings for a comfortable ride to the playoffs, but it also paved the way for the eventual league-stage exit for the double defending champions.
Be it in India or the UAE, Gaikwad was solid against pace and stellar against spin (which also served to complement his opening partner perfectly, more on that below). His dominance of spin went a long way in correcting a gaping issue in the CSK setup from IPL 2020.
While a limited sample size, his ability to take on some of the best bowlers in this format stood out: Gaikwad hit 38 off 18 balls against Rashid Khan, 31 off 19 balls against Sunil Narine, and 21 off 10 balls against Jasprit Bumrah – you’d be hard-pressed to find any batter who has had as good a time against all three of these T20 guns in the same IPL season.
Faf du Plessis
A 24-year-old and a 37-year-old combined at the top of the order to become the pillars upon which CSK built their comeback tale. The IPL 2021 that Ruturaj Gaikwad and Faf du Plessis enjoyed goes down in the tournament’s folklore.
For the first time in IPL history, two openers from the same team scored 600+ runs in one season; their partnership tally of 756 runs is the third-highest aggregate for any pair in a single season of the IPL.
Where this union made itself the perfect partnership is in how well they complemented each other. Faf du Plessis was more of the aggressor in the powerplay, Gaikwad took charge of the middle overs; du Plessis blunted pace, Gaikwad dented spin.
The CSK openers shared seven 50+ stands, the most for any pair this season, and also took CSK beyond the powerplay without the loss of a wicket on seven occasions.
For du Plessis – who bafflingly enough finds himself outside the South African squad for the T20 World Cup – it was a glorious way to put the lid on a decade of joy with the Super Kings, if it were to be his last season with the franchise.
He set the early-season marker with a 95*(60) against Kolkata Knight Riders in Mumbai, which was the first of four successive half-centuries. The UAE leg, in comparison, was going about middlingly – before the senior pro saved his best for the last, hitting 86(59) in the final against KKR.
A total of 357 runs and six wickets from 15 outings might not seem like the biggest yield from an overseas all-rounder coming in as a targeted buy – but Moeen Ali wasn’t included in the Super Kings fold for base numbers.
Intent and impact were two words that came up every other day during the lows of IPL 2020, especially against spinners and in the middle overs. That was the defined task for the Englishman: Go out, and smash.
His batting numbers for the season, at bare glance, will not suggest he did so: 23.80 runs per innings at 8.24 runs per over. But that’s because he had a really difficult second leg in the UAE.
Focus on the first half, for a minute.
Moeen hit 206 runs at 9.43 per over – of the 27 batters to face 100+ balls in the India leg, only Prithvi Shaw (9.99) and AB de Villiers (9.87) scored faster than him.
Against spin, Moeen smashed 74 runs off 41 balls at 10.83 per over – only Jos Buttler faced more balls while scoring faster (10.93).
All told, Moeen batted six times in India, scored 25 or more on five occasions, and went at above nine per over in four of those.
The role, clearly defined as it may have been, was far from a straight-forward task – and Moeen nailed it. Think about it: Who would’ve called CSK winning four out of five games at Wankhede to begin the season?
Despite seeing his batting fall off the cliff after reaching the UAE, the 34-year-old saved a final flourish: Moeen’s 20-ball 37 propelled CSK beyond 180 in the title clash – and was a significant factor in ending the long wait for a first IPL winner from England.
His role with the ball was also quite clearly defined, and limited, in a sense. Moeen bowled 25.2 overs in 15 games, and 15.2 of those overs were bowled to left-handed batters. He may have only picked six wickets, but an economy of 6.36 was commendable – with a minimum qualification of 20 overs bowled, only four bowlers were more economical during IPL 2021.
One man who has been quite used to set-in-stone requirements at CSK over the past decade is Ravindra Jadeja: Get the overs out of the way quickly, be prepared for late cameos in the lower-middle order, do your thing on the field.
With his well-documented batting gains in recent times, a major responsibility was placed on Jadeja this time around – he was the main man for the death overs, in a team which batted deep but housed a few waning forces in the middle order.
The 32-year-old finished the season with 160 runs off the 82 balls he faced in the last four overs of the innings – going at 11.71 per over, and being dismissed only thrice in the phase.
How did that fare, at a league-wide level? In a tournament that boasts big-hitting guns of the likes of Pollard and Pandya and Russell and Maxwell and Pant and Karthik, Jadeja was the second-fastest scorer in IPL 2021 among all regular death-over batters; only AB de Villiers (13.73) scored faster (minimum 50 balls faced between overs 17-20).
The best death batters aren’t defined only by rate of scoring, but also by impact of performances, and on that count too, Jadeja served two astonishing acts: the famous 37-run over off Harshal Patel during his 62*(28) against RCB at Mumbai, and the heist against KKR at Abu Dhabi – CSK needed 24 off 10 balls, with Narine set to bowl the 20th, and Jadeja smashed 20 from the last four balls of Prasidh Krishna’s 19th over.
The batting stood out, but the bowling – far quieter in comparison – served as a vital piece of the puzzle.
Jadeja’s bowling wasn’t used entirely extensively (he bowled three overs per game, on average), but did he do the job? You bet. He finished with 13 wickets (his equal third-highest tally in an IPL season), but more impressively, he conceded 7.06 per over – his third-most economical IPL campaign, and second-best since 2009. Quite staggeringly, in CSK’s five games at the batting paradise that is Wankhede, Jadeja registered an astonishing economy rate of 6.05.
Oh, and he also took 13 catches – the most for anyone in IPL 2021. Surprise, surprise!
(Insert Sir and Lord joke here. Go on, you know you’ve thought of it already)
At the halfway stage of this season, Shardul Thakur, frankly, was having a shocker: He’d gone at 10.34 per over and picked up only five wickets from 25.5 overs across the seven games of the India leg. It didn’t help that five of those seven games were at Wankhede, but CSK would’ve hoped for much more from cricket’s ultimate ‘makes things happen’ bowler of recent times.
Well, he did make it happen. The Lord maketh wait, but the Lord giveth after all.
In UAE, Thakur took 16 wickets in nine outings, conceding 7.64 per over and picking a wicket every 12.7 balls. He was the leading wicket-taker of the UAE leg, enough to propel him to joint-third on the season’s charts level with Jasprit Bumrah. In this UAE leg, Thakur even kept a better economy than Bumrah.
It says something about his utility that Thakur’s 21 wickets in IPL 2021 were almost equally spread across the innings: Six in the powerplay, eight in the middle overs and seven at the death.
The best measure of Thakur’s impact, arguably, lies not in the numbers but in the names.
These are the 16 wickets he claimed in the UAE: Suryakumar Yadav, Devdutt Padikkal, AB de Villiers, Venkatesh Iyer, Andre Russell, Jason Holder, Evin Lewis, Sanju Samson, Shikhar Dhawan, R Ashwin, Mayank Agarwal, Sarfaraz Khan, Aiden Markram, Venkatesh Iyer, Nitish Rana, Rahul Tripathi.
The last three of those came in the final. KKR were 91/0 in 10.3 overs before Thakur struck his first blow… the rest is history.
Chew on this: If the last ball of the 2017 and the 2019 finals had worked out slightly differently, Shardul Thakur (along with MS Dhoni) would’ve laid his hands on four of the last five IPL titles.
The Lord, the saviour.
Special Mention: Well, of Course!
Is it even legal to finish any summary of a Chennai Super Kings story without the mention?
“Still, I haven’t left behind” will become to IPL 2021 what “definitely not” was to IPL 2020.
Maybe the real answer to the many questions everyone has had all along lies in not seeking one at all? I mean, would you ask a magician when he’ll exit stage while he’s still pulling rabbits out of the hat?
Midas Touch. Black Magic. Whatever it is.
What a story. What a leader. What a team!
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