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IPL 2015: Chennai Super Kings not invincible anymore

IPL 2015: Chennai Super Kings not invincible anymore

Chennai are still a strong Twenty20 side, but to be a powerhouse - like they were in years past - they might need an engine tune-up.

For the last few seasons, any curtain raiser for the Indian Premier League has included a description of Chennai Super Kings as being by far the most successful side, bar none. When the ninth edition rolls around in 2016, that narrative will not appear as ironclad.

Chennai are still the most decorated side, but the competition is catching up. And nothing reflected that quite like the Pepsi IPL 2015 final, where a well-oiled Mumbai Indians machine swatted a creaky looking Chennai outfit aside by 41 runs in a one-sided match.

Two things stood out in Chennai's 2015 campaign. First, they never appeared to be at their dominating best. Second, in spite of that, they were amongst the two best sides in the competition. What that suggests is, inherently Chennai are still a strong Twenty20 side, but to be a powerhouse - like they were in years past - they might need an engine tune-up.

The first bit of tinkering has to start right at the top, with Dwayne Smith's role. Chennai's all-round depth allowed them to overcome the several slow starts Smith gave, but it's not a sustainable model. Smith scored close to 400 runs in the season all right, but at a run rate of 7.15. Unless you can do a Chris Gayle and consistently make up the deficit later in the innings, the template of giving the first few overs to the bowlers causes more harm than good to your team, as Smith and Chennai found out to their cost.

Brendon McCullum might have fallen for low scores as often as Smith did, but he never dawdled at the crease, ensuring that even if he was out early, the scoreboard hadn't stagnated while he was there. In Faf du Plessis, Chennai had a man capable of partnering McCullum at the top effectively, but du Plessis was shunted up and down the order.

Chennai were perhaps hardest hit with Suresh Raina's slightly tepid season. It wasn't a failure by any stretch - except the standards Raina himself has set in the IPL. For the first time in eight seasons, Raina didn't go past 400 runs in the tournament. In the past, the occasional top-order failure was invariably shored up by a Raina special. When that didn't happen, it left Chennai unmoored and in choppy waters.

It didn't help that the finishing power Chennai could count on as almost routine didn't arrive from Mahendra Singh Dhoni and Ravindra Jadeja. Dhoni in fact took to using Pawan Negi above Jadeja, whose season with the bat was unremarkable though he did adequately with the ball. Dhoni has built every side he has captained by showing faith in his personnel, sometimes giving them ropes that seemed too long even by the most charitable estimates. In persisting with an off-colour Jadeja when Negi was also part of the playing XI, he miscalculated.

All of which makes it sound like Chennai finished near the bottom. That they didn't was tribute to their champion spirit, of finding a man to get the job done more often than not, and prising open avenues to win when games got tight. Dhoni might not have unveiled as many helicopter shots as the fans would have wanted, but he has lost none of his tactical nous on the field - the decision to bowl first in the IPL final notwithstanding.

Where Chennai got it right was in the bowling. Not many teams would have backed Ashish Nehra, but Chennai did last season. Nehra bowled well in the Champions League Twenty20 2014 without as many wickets to show for it, but it all came right this IPL. Dwayne Bravo was entrusted with the task of bowling at the back-end of every innings, and unfailingly delivered wickets. In between, R Ashwin was immaculate. Ashwin had only ten wickets, but the best economy rate of anyone who has bowled at least ten overs in the tournament, going at a measly 5.84 per over. Ashwin's value in keeping batsmen tied up in knots was the ideal bridge between Nehra and Bravo taking wickets, and allowed Chennai to often defend totals that seemed less than par.

Chennai's batting has traditionally been their strength, but it was the bowling that carried the team through this season. It no doubt helped that Chennai were far and away the best fielding side in the competition - the likes of McCullum, du Plessis, Bravo, Raina and Jadeja either converting quarter chances into dismissals or cutting off the runs.

And the batting, one suspects, can sort itself out fairly speedily given the calibre of personnel that are still there and the opportunity to plug some holes and get some back up in the next auction.

All the qualities that made Chennai the pre-eminent Twenty20 team of this period are still there. The think tank of Dhoni and Stephen Fleming only need to ensure that they coalesce better.