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What’s Gone Wrong for CSK?

Ben Jones takes a look at how Chennai Super Kings have struggled in IPL 2020.

After winning the IPL in 2018, and then reaching the final in 2019, Chennai Super Kings have come back down to earth with a bump this season. Only three wins from their 10 matches have seen MS Dhoni’s side sink to the bottom of the table, and only the most unlikely of turnarounds can see them make it through to the playoffs – as they have done in every previous season. So how did CSK fall so far?

NOT PICKING IMRAN TAHIR

In the age of covid-19, it’s impossible to be truly sure of the reasons for a player’s non-selection. Perhaps there are personal elements at play; perhaps the lay-off has affected key parts of a player’s game; perhaps they are no longer the same player we saw pre-pandemic.

Having said that, it is almost impossible to understand why Imran Tahir has not yet played for CSK this season. Rashid Khan’s form has improved and Yuzvendra Chahal is having a great season, but in the 18 months prior to this you could make a very decent case that Tahir was the best T20 leg spinner in the world. Winning the Purple Cap last year leans towards being trivia rather than anything more persuasive, but still, this is a guy who dominated the league last year, has dominated elsewhere, and has been left on the bench despite several overseas players, and CSK spin bowlers full stop, delivering very poor performances. There is no legitimate reason for not selecting Tahir.

Bowling has been the main problem for CSK, according to our Match Impact model, and specifically spin bowling. Chennai have the worst spin bowling Impact of any side in the competition, comfortably the most expensive spinners of any team, and have a definitively world class leg spinner being left out.

While none have been as completely baffling as Tahir’s absence, there have been odd selections elsewhere for Chennai. Persisting with Kedar Jadhav, whose career record for CSK comes out as 248 (257), has been a weight on their chances. Not starting the season with Sam Curran up the order is less a mistake than a failure of imagination and foresight. But ultimately, the absence of Tahir is the flagship failure.

NATURAL DECLINE

To an extent, this was always coming. It’s been an annual ritual over the last few IPL seasons to declare that CSK are now ‘over the hill’, and they can’t possibly sustain their success again, before they go and dominate once more.

Yet ultimately, this year seems to have been a step too far. Shane Watson is 39, Kedar Jadhav is 35, MS Dhoni is `39, DJ Bravo is 37, Murali Vijay is 36. Dhoni had gone almost 18 months without hitting a ball in professional cricket. It’s only natural that, at some point in an athletic career, performance drops.

Watson is the case in point. In 2018, he made two centuries, interspersed with a number of low scores; in 2019, he had a famously lean season before finding form in the playoffs and almost taking CSK to another title; this season, the pattern has followed, with a number of very low scores, punctuated by a few big innings, the unbeaten 83 against KXIP the highlight. Yet the overall effectiveness of Watson has fallen away year on year, scoring slower with each passing season, hitting fewer boundaries, and taking longer to get going. He still looks like Watson in the way he’s going about his business – much like how CSK still look like CSK, attempting to play the same sort of cricket – but has perhaps lost that top 10% of ability that keeps you at the cutting edge.

CSK’s fielding has also dropped off. In the last two seasons, their work in the field has saved them +2.8 and +3.3 runs per match, respectively. This year, their fielding has cost them 2.9 runs per match. Only a marginal difference really, which tends to be the way with fielding, but it could be indicative of broader physical decline that would be entirely expected – and understandable – given the age of these athletes.

NOTABLE ABSENCES

Before the season even began, CSK suffered a double-blow, losing two key individuals. Both Suresh Raina and Harbhajan Singh opted out of the tournament for personal reasons. Whatever those reasons may have been, it left Dhoni’s side considerably weaker. Raina has, in pure Batting Impact terms, been roughly an average batsman for the last five seasons, hovering just under 0 in that time. He is by no means a world-beater. However, he fulfilled a number of very important functions in that CSK side: being left-handed through the middle overs, hitting spin, and being remarkably consistent. An experienced domestic player, who breaks up a right-hander heavy order, offering about the average returns in terms of individual numbers, would have significantly boosted CSK’s hopes – especially when you look at the quality of the players who have been trying to fill his shoes.

Equally, Harbhajan was a big miss. As mentioned already, CSK have struggled significantly with their spin bowling this season. This does come with the important caveat that both Raina and Harbhajan could just as easily succumbed to the natural decline which we have seen elsewhere, and they may not have individually been able to solve the key issues in this CSK side. However, it’s hard to see how their presence – on the field at least – could have made things worse for Chennai this season.

LACK OF DOMESTIC YOUTH

This is a subtle point, but one worth making. There is no inherent benefit to a player being old, or young. Newer players are perhaps more open to being moulded, technically and tactically, than older players, while veterans are perhaps on balance less prone to rash mistakes. Experience isn’t key; youth isn’t key. You can win matches with either.

However, the contrast between CSK’s age profile and the rest of the tournament this year is marked. For years the pioneers of embracing older, more experienced players – ‘Dad’s Army’ hilarity etc – CSK have never looked further from the overall trend in IPL cricket. The U-19 World Cup stars coming through now across the tournament have made a huge impact, and while their contributions have been inconsistent, they have also been completely absent from CSK’s side. CSK have not fielded a single domestic player aged 22 or under, in the entire tournament. When other sides have struggled, they’ve turned to their youthful reserves, but CSK have turned to established, aging players who – as discussed – may simply be at the end of the road.

NO HOME ADVANTAGE

The move to the United Arab Emirates has obviously changed things substantially for all the teams involved in the IPL, but CSK have arguably suffered the most. While all successful T20 sides exploit the quirks of their home conditions, CSK do so more than most, the slow low turning tracks of Chepauk offering a template for recruitment and strategy. Last season they won 6 of 7 matches at home, the highest win percentage of any side – torn away from the comforts of Chennai, they were always going to find it tough.

They have, of course, coped without home advantage in the past, the obvious parallel being with the 2018 season when they were forced to leave Chennai and play their ‘home’ games in Pune. They won the IPL that season, and seemed to cope alright with the huge structural change. However, this is a different squad, at a different stage of the cycle, and it has seemingly been harder to adapt.

The classic CSK model of selection is to sit back, take the laissez faire route, and make as few changes as possible. In part, this is boosted by the stability afforded by a home venue that you know and love, one which you understand the characteristics of. When you know you’re playing at least seven matches at home, you can bank on picking the right team for those conditions, and then letting form/natural variation even itself out, sticking with that core XI. This year, a small number of venues may be hosting the matches but they’re spread evenly. The opportunity to just let players work a surface out, and nail that advantage, is lessened.

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Ben Jones is an analyst at CricViz.

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