Ben Jones looks at how MS Dhoni’s side are shaping up ahead of the new season.
Coach: Stephen Fleming
Captain: MS Dhoni
Last season: 7th
Squad Changes: Kedar Jadhav, Piyush Chawla, Shane Watson, Murali Vijay, Harbhajan Singh, Monu Kumar Singh, Moeen Ali, Krishnappa Gowtham, Cheteshwar Pujara, Harishankar Reddy, K Bhagath Varma, Chezhian Harinishanth
Venues: Mumbai 5, Delhi 4, Bangalore 3, Kolkata 2
The variety of all-rounders in Chennai’s squad gives them tremendous bowling and batting depth. Depending on their eventual XI, you could end up with No.8/9/10 as Jadeja, Chahar, and Thakur, which is excellent hitting all the way down the order, while also managing to include six genuine bowling options in the attack, with the possibility of four different bowling techniques. Aside from Sam Curran and Ravindra Jadeja, the players themselves don’t stand out individually, but Dhoni has ensured that he will at the very least have options to play with.
After missing last season for a mixture of reasons, Suresh Raina returns to the Chennai set-up. Alongside Moeen Ali, he’s likely to form a very strong left-handed middle-order that will look to dominate spin and, while vulnerable to the short ball, could control Overs 7-15.
Their batting is not strong. While imports like Moeen Ali have a high ceiling as T20 batsmen, the core of their side – Dhoni, Rayudu – are middling T20 players who are unlikely to take things to the next level. While the batting depth clearly compensates for individual skill or explosiveness, it will take a clear change in captaincy style from Dhoni to fully exploit that, encouraging a carefree and aggressive batting approach that has been anathema to his most successful CSK sides. Opening with Moeen or Curran may give them the kick they need at the top of the order, but otherwise the personnel may instinctively lack the intent to make the most of the long line-up.
The lack of high pace in their bowling unit is a concern, exposing them on the flatter tracks we would imagine should dominate the early stages of the tournament. Lungi Ngidi is likely their quickest bowler, averaging 137kph in this format, but that is not the sort of express pace we have seen in fashion across other squads. In this sense, playing five matches at the Wankhede, the home ground of their arch-rivals, will doubly hurt their chances.
Against teams who require that high pace to combat their batsman’s spin-focused skills (Punjab Kings) or against batting line-ups who feast on slower balls (Mumbai Indians), CSK are very poorly placed. As such, Dhoni may look to counter those teams by doubling down on spin options and ‘match-up’ in a different way; while CSK are not known for selection flexibility, with their weakest squad in a long-time, it may be required.
As a batting unit, they match-up terribly against leg spin; only Jagadeesan and Moeen Ali have a positive Average Batting Impact against leg spin in the last three years of T20 cricket, among all their primary batting options. Sides like Rajasthan Royals (and perhaps RCB) who have the option to field two leg spinners without overly affecting their balance, are well placed to exploit this.
Of all the sides this year, Chennai arguably have the most open race for the first XI.
While Dhoni’s side have made a legacy out of confounding pre-tournament expectations, last year felt like a turning point for an ageing squad. While exciting players have been added and their unique depth does offer a stylistic contrast to the other teams at the very least, on paper they simply lack the quality to be bothering the upper ends of the table. Barring a substantial up-turn in performance for key players, they’ll be competing to avoid the wooden spoon at the bottom of the table and, right now, you’d say they’re favourites to take it.
Ben Jones is an analyst at CricViz.