They can be stubborn to a foul, but their mantra works: the team that makes the fewest mistakes wins the most.
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Tom Moody and Sanjay Manjrekar on what makes CSK successful, under Stephen Fleming and MS Dhoni
When a batter struggles like Devon Conway, the broadcast cameras turn to the dugout and locker room for reactions. Considered the new Michael Hussey for Chennai Super Kings, Conway looked unable to knock in or out even though Ruturaj Gaikwad scored fluently at the other end. It was like he was in quicksand: the harder he tried, the deeper he sank. He controlled exactly half of the deliveries he faced.
Yet neither camera could pick up a reaction in the dugout, where coach Stephen Fleming sat, or in the locker room, where MS Dhoni sat. Dhoni has been there before. He saw Yuvraj Singh stuck in the T20 World Cup final in 2014 but with far less luck than Conway, who at least found some sharp boundaries. He saw Ravindra Jadeja stuck at a previous T20 World Cup in England but that didn’t stop him from supporting Jadeja.
You wonder if Dhoni remembered that night in Dhaka, but you also had to be sure that not a single second in that camp would have thought of something as awesome as pulling out one of his batters the more reliable for anyone else to have there.
CSK doesn’t believe in anything funky. If a specialist hitter on their side is having trouble playing, they believe there’s every chance the new hitter will find it more difficult. They are happy as long as the player shows the right intention and tries to do what he trained for.
When the camera caught a reaction from Dhoni, it was when the match was finished and dusted as GT needed 31 from eight with a wicket in hand, and Tushar Deshpande tried to bluff Mohammed Shami looking for a counter. He let out a long “kyuuuuuun(whyyyyyyy) and showed Deshpande the number of offside defenders when he played Shami’s leggings.
Along the same lines, Dhoni said during the post-match presentation that he told his defenders that dropping a hold wouldn’t elicit a reaction from him but didn’t look at him all the time – he is a meticulous captain who continues to move his defenders. a couple of feet this way or that often – won’t be good for them.
The process counts, not the results: that sounds great to hear, but in a playoff, when the game slips away, when you know what the dew did to your bowlers in the last game at the same venue, there’s there aren’t many leaders other than Dhoni and Fleming who still manage to believe that the team that makes the fewest mistakes wins the most.
Overnight, Hardik Pandya said his side had made more “basic mistakes”. Despite being the best team in the tournament, they did all the work: bringing in a player for the first time this IPL, disrupting the batting order that won them the last game for no simple reason. Pandya also said that they gave up two or three too many balls, which was the difference between the two teams.
This is not to justify not improvising. CSK and India under Dhoni have lost games in the past when they might have done better improvising but CSK are happy to live with those days when the other team wins despite more mistakes in a format of cricket that relies heavily on luck. They are happy with 160 and the competition rather than aiming for 180 and risk being eliminated for 140.
Luck was on CSK’s side. Only Gujarat Titans’ second forward pitch turned out to be the one that secured the wicket for Ruturaj Gaikwad, who became player of the match. CSK scored an additional 14 points because of it according to ESPNcricinfo’s Luck Index; they won by 15.
More importantly, the dew came later than the other night and gave them a 45-minute power-play-and-death window where Jadeja and Maheesh Theekshana were able to spin the ball around at high speed. At such times, the combination of Dhoni and Jadeja is irresistible, and Theekshana quickly joins the club.
Even when a mistake was unavoidable, Dhoni had the presence of mind to choose the smaller one. We don’t know what the fitness issue was, but Matheesha Pathirana was off the pitch for a while after his debut game. By the time the 16th over began, he still hadn’t served enough time on the court to be able to start his second over. If he hadn’t beaten Pathirana then, Dhoni would have had to go without four overs of his main weapon on the death.
Between having to miss a Pathirana and instead bowl a cold bowler, and having an extra outfielder in the circle for an over, Dhoni chose the obvious lesser evil. He kept the clock ticking until the referees said Pathirana had served his time and went on without a fuss. It was Dhoni’s captain’s version of what he tells his bowlers: if you throw a bad over, make sure it’s 13-14 run bad and not 20 run bad.
In an endearing post-match interview, Dhoni was asked if he had reached a stage where he could call the 10th IPL final in 14 attempts just another final. Already a bit moved by the generous reaction from the crowd, Dhoni said that in a tournament as important as the IPL, there can never be “just another final”. Who knows, it might even be the last match he will play for CSK. For four hours on Sunday, then, can he and Fleming pretend that the results don’t matter and the process does?
Sidharth Monga is an associate editor at ESPNcricinfo