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After the high of three Super Overs on Sunday evening, life returned to normalcy in the 2020 Indian Premier League. After all it was Monday – how could the merriment continue on this day? Get to work, get serious, and don’t dare have any fun. Watching two poor teams labour against each other for the wooden spoon was akin to attending a cricket match with your boss. And not of the ‘good boss’ variety!

Don’t be surprised by the ‘two poor teams’ moniker. Chennai Super Kings and Rajasthan Royals haven’t really set this IPL season on fire. If at all, they have mostly poured cold water over proceedings with their strange selections, rigid processes and inconsistent form. Some would argue Kings XI Punjab have been no better, but remember they lost three games they could have won on a different day. You cannot say the same about Chennai or Rajasthan.

Let’s talk about the Royals first. Steve Smith’s policy has been to chop and change things around at the slightest pretext and as a result Rajasthan have suffered from a bout of inconsistency. Just look at Sanju Samson’s struggles. He started off well and then his form tapered off – this is how Samson plays out IPL seasons. But just when you think he might be afforded the chance to regain confidence and score some runs, he was shunted down the batting order.

Cynics will argue that number three and number four aren’t too far apart, especially in the shortest format. They are quite wrong. Because of the reduction in time and playing overs, it makes a lot of difference. Coming out to bat when you are 2-down in the powerplay overs has different demands as compared to batting at 2-down in the 14th over. When this move didn’t work either, Samson was moved back to number three and it was Jos Buttler’s turn to traverse down the order.

It seemed excessive initially, albeit Buttler dug in deep against Chennai on Monday night and worked his way to a match-winning 70 not out off 48 balls. The phrase ‘worked his way’ is of underlying importance herein. Walking in at 28/3 isn’t easy, even when you are chasing just 126. The low target allowed Buttler – and Smith – enough time to settle in, and they worked it into an advantage. At the halfway mark, Buttler had scored 23 off 18 balls. Smith was even further behind 7 off 19 balls.

This is where the match descended into attrition. Chennai Super Kings were hoping for conditions to turn into their favour. It didn’t happen. Rajasthan perhaps only wished for this partnership to continue. After all, it was a desperate hour – they needed to justify making such sweeping changes to strategy. Buttler doesn’t even bat at number five for England in T20Is.

Then again, as a keeper-batsman who is keen to perform multiple roles, he is nothing if not adaptable. Buttler drew on his experience to weather the storm and stay at the wicket, which is something Samson can learn from if he intends to harbour Team India aspirations. The former knew just when to pull the trigger – 47 off the next 30 balls he faced – and that is not a balance everyone can achieve across formats. Who knows, Buttler may have opened up a new avenue for himself and English cricket as they seek to add the T20 World Cup to their 2019 ODI crown.

It brings us to Chennai Super Kings and where they lost the game despite Royals struggling. Skipper MS Dhoni mentioned post-match that he expected the Abu Dhabi wicket to slow down in the second innings, something that didn’t happen. It is a general characteristic of the UAE wickets – all three grounds were supposed to have slowed down by now, and they have, but to a lower extent than anticipated. The difference in par score isn’t as big – 180 is the new 200, 160 the new 180. It hasn’t come down to 140-150 levels just yet.

Slower pitches in the second half of the tournament were Chennai Super Kings’ last hope of revival in the 2020 IPL. You can almost see them going for it in hope – two matches ago, they played seven bowlers against Sunrisers Hyderabad, including three spinners. It was a short-lived experiment in the garb of balance and when Dwayne Bravo was unavailable, they didn’t opt for Imran Tahir but went for a third pacer in Josh Hazlewood. Dhoni’s acknowledgment only meant that Chennai now realise it’s too late. In other words, their knockout hopes have been dashed, possibly for good.

Yes, CSK will no longer finish in the top-four, at least that’s what the team management has accepted. It is a weird one – mathematically, it is still possible. They are only four points away from the fourth spot, with four games left. They are yet to play Mumbai Indians, Royal Challengers Bangalore, Kolkata Knight Riders and Kings XI Punjab. Four wins would give Chennai 14 points and in a season where the points’ table is so condensed, that ought to put them in contention.

“This season we weren't really there. But what this result has done is give those youngsters whatever is left in our league stages. Also there were few chances to the youngsters. Maybe we didn't see the kind of spark that they could've given us to say okay you know push the experienced guys and make space for them. They will get a chance and have no real pressure on them so they can go out and express themselves,” said Dhoni after Chennai sunk to eighth in the points’ table.

Two things here – first, despite mathematical possibility, Dhoni has conceded defeat. While it will be miraculous to secure four wins in four games against those teams, his words imply that Chennai have accepted they aren’t capable of miracles this season. And it comes as no surprise – their performances are there for everyone to see. They are missing key players, the 'golden oldies' cannot carry this team anymore and spinners-on-slow-tracks strategy hasn’t come into play. They tried going aggressive, doing things differently, it didn’t work either. Throwing in the towel seems obvious.

One aspect is missing from the aforementioned, and this is where the second point comes in. Youth – that adventurism, that aggression, that excitement, that push to grab opportunities and make a name – has been missing from Chennai’s outings.

So, were Dhoni’s words unfair? Yes, and no.

Sample this. Ruturaj Gaikwad and N Jagadeesan played three matches between them, at a time when Chennai were missing key batsmen. Together they scored 38 runs. In a tournament wherein Devdutt Padikkal, Priyam Garg and Riyan Parag are setting the stage on fire, it isn’t a good enough return.

But Kedar Jadhav got to feature in eight matches, scoring 62 runs in five innings. For an experienced international cricketer, his contribution across the board has been less than negligible. Why the different parameters, based only on age? Did Gaikwad and Jagadeesan merit more chances therein? Perhaps, yes.

It shines spotlight on Chennai’s flawed strategy of relying solely on experience, and for such a long time. Further they chose to ignore the gaping holes in performance last season and didn’t plug them on time. Why? Because this is a team set in its ways, and you can understand their reluctance to change methods, which worked in the past.

When things just aren’t working out though, at what point does reluctance become stubbornness?


Caption: Steve Smith and Jos Buttler took Rajasthan Royals to victory over Chennai Super Kings. Photograph: Sportzpics

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