So, what is CSK’s winning formula? Can there be a uniform template in a franchise competition in cricket, where the shift from international to a club-focused calendar, for good or bad, is still a work in progress?
In IPL’s case, it’s even more complex. A mega-auction comes every four years, garners television eyeballs but disbands squads. “It’s a bit of a harrowing experience,” CSK head coach Stephen Fleming said after their fifth title. “…to have great relationships, cut them and rebuild.”
Fleming gave an example of the heartache it caused them to lose a player of Faf du Plessis’ calibre in the auction. “We tried to pick players who we felt could replicate the skills sets that we wanted and how we want them to play,” he explained.
That’s how Devon Conway and Ruturaj Gaikwad – their starts left the biggest impact of all opening pairs in the season – came together.
Gaikwad is 26 and tipped to become an India regular. Conway 31, is by no means a young recruit. Outwardly looking for a young crop has never been CSK’s recruitment template. Nor have they fallen for the pressures of picking players from a catchment area to expand their fan base.
Which team wouldn’t like to have the fearlessness of youth in an aggressive format like T20, one may argue? KKR tried it in 2018, picking India’s U19 World Cup stars – Shubman Gill, Shivam Mavi and Kamlesh Nagarkotti. None of them plays in purple anymore.
MI invests a lot in youth. Some players blossom, sooner than others; Tilak Varma and Nehal Wadhera look good to stay the course. But will MI be able to retain them or win them back in the 2024 mega auction?
CSK have their own academies and the local TNPL league is a great source for scouting. But on the auction table, they remain pragmatic. It didn’t deter them from recruiting a 34-year-old Ajinkya Rahane or a 29-year-old India discard Shivam Dube who was known to be a soft target against the short ball. Once the players are picked up, it’s Fleming and captain MS Dhoni’s job to allot them roles and harness their true potential.
“My understanding is that (with Rahane) we got rid of the tag that you are the guy that we bat around. That may have hung around his mind too much and didn’t allow him to be the player he can be,” said Fleming. “Once it was gone, when I turned up halfway through the pre-season training, I saw a guy who was in magnificent form.”
In his 15th season, Rahane found his true T20 calling; his 326 runs came at a strike rate of 172.
Dube, another Mumbai boy has always had long levers and natural power-hitting ability. But the left-hander’s transition from domestic to IPL and T2OIs proved to be challenging. He didn’t always have an answer to the short ball. Some technical and mental notes from the coolest brains in the business later, Dube proved to be the middle-overs enforcer – against pace and spin in equal measure, this season.
With Deepak Chahar, their ₹14 crore recruit’s injury-prone status, bowling was always going to be the most challenging. “There was a lot of media around player workloads for us. Some players when they arrived were quite broken,” Fleming said alluding to Chahar. “It was about patching them up.”
In baby Malinga, Matheesha Pathirana, and value buy Tushar Deshpande, they found the pacers to supplement their leading spinners. Pathirana was exclusively used as an X factor against weaker match-ups and introduced in the second half of the innings and a lot at the death.
Deshpande was encouraged to use his years of domestic experience and go for wickets, even if he was expensive. “With DJ (bowling coach Bravo) alongside, all the plans were clear,” said Deshpande.
THE CSK WAY
Giving players a well-defined role in a team sport makes perfect sense in theory. However, not all teams are able to put it into practice. CSK did it well even in their 2010 and 2011 winning seasons, when T20 wasn’t being played on such a sharp edge. Suresh Raina’s bold batting at No 3 was a prime example.
“MS Dhoni instilled in me the freedom to express myself and play fearlessly,” Raina, now working as a Jio Cinema commentator said. “I vividly remember one match where we were chasing a daunting total. One look at the calmness in Dhoni’s eyes and it instantly dissolved my nerves.”
The most remarkable CSK campaign was that of 2018 where they returned after a two-year suspension, picked a team of wise-old athletes, mocked as the Dad’s Army and beat everyone else to the title.
Then, it was Shane Watson. The Australian battling niggles and form, came good in the final with a match-winning hundred. In 2023, it was Ambati Rayudu, playing the final match of his career.
The 37-year-old had played a limited part in the season as an Impact substitute. In the final, his 6-4-6 against the wily Mohit Sharma in their run chase swung the momentum of the final in CSK’s favour.
All these moments, however, mask how CSK truly manages to make all these players feel like they belong. Many clubs talk about being a family but few demonstrate it as well as CSK. They truly win together and lose together. And they embrace both with the same calm that their skipper so naturally exudes.
Dhoni is the leader but the other believe in not just him but also in the team philosophy. And in the end, it all seems to magically add up.