If you were to set out to build the perfect Twenty20 franchise team - keeping perfection within the bounds of reality - what would you do?
You would want a team that can bat deep for starters. The art of 'finishing' well has increasingly become the most valuable aspect of batting in the Pepsi IPL - witness David Miller, Shane Watson et al - so you would want somebody who can grab the game in the end overs, to ensure that even an asking rate of more than 12 doesn't have the dugout sweating. That means the top order has to provide stability as well as quick scoring, with perhaps a very slight tilt towards stability over rapidness.
You would also want insurance in the middle order, to bridge the gap between the openers and the finishers, in case of a top order collapse.
The bowling attack is fairly straightforward - well rounded, with preferably one strike-bowling option in each of the pace and spin departments. And a good mix of bowlers who can bat and batsmen who can bowl is essential.
Top that off with electricity in the field and sparkle in the captaincy. And then you'll get the Chennai Super Kings, version 6.0.
The most successful side in IPL history, Chennai have played five seasons without ever quite dominating the league phase like they've done in 2013. And I say this in spite of a largely forgettable last ten days, where batting failures led to defeats against Mumbai Indians and Rajasthan Royals.
This is being written when Chennai no longer hold the top spot in the points table, pipped by Mumbai's superior net run-rate and with Rajasthan hot on their heels. Both Rajasthan and Mumbai are formidable in their own right - but none of them exude the aura of completeness that Chennai have worn this year. You can find a problem area for both teams, but not for Chennai.
What if Shane Watson fails? Will Rajasthan's bowling be good enough to hold up away from home? Can Mumbai afford to continue opening with Dwayne Smith and Sachin Tendulkar - who have both found it frequently difficult to score quickly at the top? Which Mitchell Johnson will turn up - the one who's a godsend when on song or the one who started the match against Sunrisers Hyderabad by conceding 19 in his first over?
Chennai check all the boxes. Michael Hussey at the top, Suresh Raina in the middle, MS Dhoni to finish, with the X-factor of M Vijay, who is bound to come good at some point, and Ravindra Jadeja, who has already won a couple of matches by himself. In case of a collapse, there's S Badrinath and even R Ashwin. For late-order runs, there's Dwayne Bravo.
Mohit Sharma has been a revelation and plugged a loophole that has consistently hampered Chennai earlier - the lack of an incisive and economical new-ball bowler. Bravo has bowled a lot at the death, and the thing for bowlers who do that is to pick up wickets because it's almost guaranteed that they'll go for runs. The Purple Cap is, at most times, a meaningless measure, but that Bravo has always been in the running for it when he has not worn it himself, attests to how well he has performed his role.
Dhoni has used R Ashwin most ingeniously too. In eight of the 14 matches so far, Ashwin has come on as the third or fourth change bowler. Only four times has he bowled first-change, a complete contrast to how he was used in 2010, bowling plenty in the powerplay overs. Ashwin was merely talented in 2010, but in 2013, he's become one of international cricket's leading bowlers, and has been used accordingly.
The ingredients together make for a very good team, but Dhoni's handling of it has elevated it a notch. Of all the teams at the top, nobody has shown a better grasp of the Twenty20 game. It is only Dhoni and Chennai who have treated a T20 team innings as a downward progression from 120 balls. That is why, Chennai have no fixed batting order after the top three - only fixed batting times. Dhoni has deciphered that it's best for him to walk in at around the half-way mark, and that is what he's done every time. It doesn't matter which wicket falls around the half-way mark - that is when Dhoni walks in.
As a finisher in limited-overs internationals, Dhoni has no betters, only equals, and a select few at that. Like most batsmen however, he too needs a bit of a sighter before he can kick off, and he seems to have figured out that the ideal time for that is when there are 60 balls - give or take a few - left.
That understanding of a Twenty20 innings is apparent in the bowling changes he makes too. Against Rajasthan on Sunday (May 12), with Chennai defending a sub-par total, Dhoni bowled out Jason Holder, Chennai's best bowler on the day, by the 13thover, while Chris Morris, who had also troubled the batsmen, finished his quota at the 15-over mark.
The thinking presumably, was for either of them to make breakthroughs and keep things tight, leaving Rajasthan's batsmen with a stiffer ask - perhaps one that the other bowlers could have controlled.
Perhaps the only area that Chennai can look at is the composition of their overseas players. Faf du Plessis, one of world cricket's brightest talents, is sitting on the bench because the selectors think only one of du Plessis or Hussey can be in the XI. But an experiment worth trying out would be to, perhaps, bench Morris and get in du Plessis, which would also require an Indian batsman missing out and a local bowler coming in to maintain team balance.
The unfortunate candidate, who himself has done little wrong, could well be Badrinath, because an opening combination of Hussey and du Plessis, potentially the best in the tournament, with Raina below and Vijay as the floater will leave little room for him.
In 2010 and 2012, Chennai made it past the league stage by the skin of their teeth. In 2013, they are well on track to march in first. What's changed is, though they have been the most successful side historically, this is the first time they've looked like the best team in the league stages too.
Technically, they haven't qualified yet, but it will be amongst the most massive shockers if they don't. Given their historical ability to lift themselves at the crunch, it will be a truly intimidating outfit to face if they make it through to the playoffs.
Story first published on: Wednesday, 15 May 2013 11:41 IST