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A thing that stood out in the back-to-back losses suffered by the Chennai Super Kings against the Rajasthan Royals and Delhi Capitals was that in both matches, skipper MS Dhoni held himself back even as the top order failed and the batters coming ahead of him ate up balls, pushing the already formidable asking rate to near-impossible proportions.
The move defied cricketing sense as neither the pundits nor experts on air could get their heads around to why the skipper, being one of the hardest and biggest hitters of the cricket ball even at 38, chose not to bat up the order despite the match situation begging for him to do so.
For someone who played some of his best knocks in limited overs internationals up the order to not have come out to bat at the fall of Murali Vijay’s wicket at 58, in pursuit of 217, against the Royals and send all-rounder Sam Curran ahead of him would appear daft unless backed by a compelling reason.
Asked what prompted him to hold himself back in the chase at the post-match presentation, Mahi said, “I haven’t batted for a long time. 14-day quarantine doesn’t help (when it comes to batting higher). Also wanted to try different things, give opportunities to Sam. If it doesn’t work, you can always go back to your strengths.”
As it turned out, CSK made a good feast of the chase only to fall 16 short of the target in the end. While he did seem to indicate that he was yet to hit top ball-striking form, MS belted Tom Curran for three huge sixes in the final over to reduce the margin of defeat to 16 runs.
Though the equation was well beyond CSK by the time Dhoni went big, the question that may have crossed many minds in that moment was why couldn’t he have done it batting at numbers 3 or 4 where he would have had more balls to realistically go for the target.
Former England batsman Kevin Pietersen, who is part of the commentary team for the tournament, said he was having none of what Dhoni offered in the way of explanation for coming in at No.7 against the Royals.
Speaking at a post-match show after the 16-run defeat, Pietersen said, “Yeah, you got to get up. You have to at least give yourself the opportunity to win the game.
Coming into bat with CSK needing another 103 runs off 38 balls, a situation where singles and twos surely wouldn’t have won it for them, Dhoni, quite inexplicably, shied away from going after the bowlers and preferred instead to turn the strike over to Francois du Plessis.
The pair scored in singles and doubles even as the asking rate kept mounting.
Weighing in on that passage of play, the star batsman said, “So we are talking about a 4 or 5-over period when they were just knocking it around, knocking it around and running silly singles. They could have caught the game up there with a little bit of intent. They could have easily knocked this score off. If you need 20 in the last over, you can win this game. It’s not about experiments, saying ‘oh, it’s early on in the tournament’. Let me tell you, T20 cricket can bite you very, very quickly. You can end up losing five games on the go very quickly, and then you can end up thinking ‘oh my goodness, are we actually going to get into the finals?’ I’m not buying into this nonsense.”
Far from learning a lesson from the defeat at the hands of the Royals, Dhoni continued with the strange tactic in the following Dubai encounter against Delhi Capitals. Batting first, the Capitals, riding on a swashbuckling 43-ball 64 from young Prithvi Shaw and handy contributions from his opening partner Shikhar Dhawan and Rishabh Pant, finished at a challenging 175/3.
Chennai, in reply, were rocked early with Shane Watson, Murali Vijay and young Ruturaj Gaikwad returning to the pavilion for cheap. It was another situation tailor-made for MSD to come out and take the bull by the horns. However, the skipper held himself back again and sent Kedar Jadhav in at No.5.
As was feared, the move royally backfired as Jadhav was sent back in the 16th over, with the CSK still 78 runs in arrears. The equation, as it turned out, was well beyond the reach of even the ‘Superman’ from Ranchi as Chennai eventually finished 44 runs short.
Even as questions continued to be raised on Dhoni’s baffling decision to bat lower down in a format ideally suited to his power game, CSK coach and former New Zealand captain Stephen Fleming jumped to his defense, saying, “MS is one of the players that hasn’t played much cricket in the last year-and-a-half. Everyone expects MS to come out and do what he has done in the past. It doesn’t just happen, it takes a bit of work and part of his process of getting up to speed is his game time.”
The lack of match practice or game time apart, what may be forcing the skipper’s hand, with regard to his batting position, is the absence of Ambati Rayudu and Suresh Raina.
While Rayudu sat out the last two matches with an injury, Raina, one of their middle-order mainstays, left the bubble before the tournament citing ‘personal reasons’.
With two experienced campaigners not there, Dhoni might be feeling the need to bat lower down and take the mantle of a finisher, especially in situations where matches go deep and his unflappable nerves and skill-sets are needed to steer the ship home from a tight corner.
However, for Chennai to be in those sort of situations, the top and middle orders have to fire and take the equation down to 25 off five overs before MSD comes and does what he does best. Even as wickets went down in the last two matches, Dhoni stuck to Plan A, which was to hold himself back for a final flourish.
Having lost two matches on the bounce, Chennai need to come back strong before it’s too late and a change of tactic by the captain and the think-tank might well be in order.