Runners-up, semi-finalists, champions, champions. Thus reads Chennai Super Kings' record across the first four seasons of the IPL. They have been the most consistent and successful team in the league by far, and are the most settled side as well, after retaining most of their squad in last year's shuffle.
That they have a settled line-up was reflected in the 2012 auction, when they were willing to spend their entire purse on a single acquisition: Ravindra Jadeja. They were involved in a fierce bidding war for Jadeja with Deccan Chargers, and eventually beat them in the tie-breaker. Even so, Super Kings cannot afford any complacency and coach Stephen Fleming knows it. "There is a fine line between finishing first or indeed missing out on the finals," he said in an interview on the franchise's website. They have tread that line on several occasions - in 2008 and 2010 Super Kings faced a must-win situation in their last league game to make the semis, while last year they almost complicated things for themselves by delaying their launch till the very last moment in a stiff chase in the play-off against Royal Challengers Bangalore. (Fixtures)
In 2011 the batting was typically solid, with MS Dhoni, Suresh Raina, Michael Hussey, S Badrinath and M Vijay all aggregating in the vicinity of 400 runs. R Ashwin, expectedly, led the team's bowling charts with 20 wickets at 19.40 apiece. If Super Kings have a weakness, though, it is on the fast-bowling front. Their opponents have often got off to fliers against the quicks, before Dhoni has applied the squeeze and invariably turned the match with the spinners. On that count, they will be happy to have the services of Australia's Ben Hilfenhaus this time around. When he arrives from the West Indies, he should form a solid partnership with Doug Bollinger, Super Kings' pace spearhead over the last two seasons.
Off the field, Super Kings have been at the centre of several controversial issues - including a possible conflict of interest with BCCI president N Srinivasan also managing India Cements, the owners of Super Kings - but their on-field performance has been strong enough to steal the headlines and deflect negative publicity.
The Dhoni-Raina combine: For Super Kings, when it comes to key performers, it's hard to look beyond MS Dhoni and Suresh Raina. The pair has formed the backbone of the team since the inaugural IPL, with Raina not missing a single match across seasons and captain Dhoni missing just three of Super Kings' 62 games. Dhoni, with an average touching 40, has scored 1425 runs, while Raina is the leading run-getter in the IPL's short history with 1813 at 36.26. Add to that Raina's tidy offspin and electric fielding, and Dhoni's tactical nous on tweaker-friendly tracks, and you know why Chennai paid big bucks to retain them last season.
Dwayne Bravo: Super Kings have a preference for allrounders. The squad is always packed with them, one being Bravo, who Super Kings signed last year. Coming off a long break due to an ankle injury, Bravo was picked in the West Indies squad for the limited-overs games against Australia earlier this month, and took up new-ball duty in the ODIs. If he could do the same, effectively, for Super Kings, it would add better balance to the side. That, plus a few timely cameos down the order, and he could push Albie Morkel for the No. 1 allrounder's spot in the XI.
Big names in
Ravindra Jadeja: The only new signing in a well-established squad, Jadeja, as an allrounder, fits Super Kings' preferred mould. Unlike the overseas allrounders, though, he gives Super Kings a spinning option. Presumably, he has always enjoyed the backing of his captain, Dhoni, but he might still feel the pressure to perform after being the biggest buy at the 2012 auction.
Ben Hilfenhaus: A potential answer to Super Kings' fast-bowling worries. Hilfenhaus was meant to play the 2011 IPL for Chennai, but missed out due to injury. Prior to that, he had had a poor showing in the 2010-11 Ashes, meaning he was out of the Australia team. When he returned, after almost a year, he hit top form - he led the wicket-takers' charts in the Australia-India Test series, and returned to international limited-overs cricket with a five-for in the tri-series that followed.
Big names out
Tim Southee: The New Zealand quick replaced the injured Hilfenhaus in the squad last season, and began impressively: his inch-perfect final-over yorkers won Super Kings' the tournament opener against the Kolkata Knight Riders by two runs. Thereafter though, he tapered off a bit, finishing with four wickets from five games at 41.50 apiece. He went unsold at the 2012 auction.
Below the radar
Anirudha Srikkanth: A hard-hitting opening batsman, Anirudha was the Man of the Match in last year's opener against Knight Riders. Once Michael Hussey arrived though, he, expectedly, was sidelined. This year, fitness and availability issues could mean that Anirudha has a chance to open the innings with M Vijay early in the tournament once again. He showed decent touch in the recently-concluded domestic one-day competition, the Vijay Hazare Trophy, scoring three half-centuries in five matches for Tami Nadu. Super Kings will want more of the same.
Opening batsman Abhinav Mukund twisted his left ankle during the pre-tournament training camp on Sunday, and will be out of action for ten days. Among the overseas signings, Doug Bollinger, Albie Morkel, Faf du Plessis, Dwayne Bravo and George Bailey are all available from the start of the tournament. Offspinner Suraj Randiv is expected to arrive on April 8, following the conclusion of the Sri Lanka-England Tests, and Hilfenhaus and Hussey on April 30, after the West Indies Tests. Sri Lanka seamer Nuwan Kulasekara, who is recovering from a hamstring strain, is scheduled to join the squad on April 10.