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IPL 2020: RR vs CSK – In defense of MS Dhoni 


I get it. You hate CSK. You hate everything about the team. You hate their leader. You hate the way they play. You hate how they approach matches. You hate that they have three IPL title wins. You constantly ask, more rhetorically, “how do they reach the play-offs EVERY SINGLE TIME?”.

There’s no one answer to that question. But if anything gave a glimpse of Chennai’s mindset in a tournament like the IPL, it was the controversial run-chase against Rajasthan Royals on Tuesday at Sharjah. 

There are four events in the CSK run-chase that needs to be highlighted.

  • The injury to Ambati Rayudu
  • The dismissals of Shane Watson and Murali Vijay.
  • The promotion of Sam Curran, Ruturaj Gaikwad and Kedar Jadhav over MS Dhoni.
  • The promotion (arguable) of MS Dhoni over Ravindra Jadeja (and Deepak Chahar).

The injury to Ambati Rayudu meant that CSK were already short on batting firepower. They had lost Suresh Raina prior to the season and Rayudu, their star performer against Mumbai Indians, was unavailable for this fixture. 

In a line-up that thrives on continuity and stability, every single replacement is a major change to how they set themselves up. Rayudu’s injury meant that CSK were already hit in the run-chase before they had even begun the chase.

Chasing 216, Chennai made 53 for the loss of no wickets in the powerplay, their fourth highest score in the first six overs since 2018 in a run-chase. They haven’t lost a wicket yet and Watson, who has the best strike-rate in the middle overs in the league since 2018, has warmed up well. 

At this point, they are in the game.

Rahul Tewatia then gets one past Watson and has him cleaned up. A lot of things change with the dismissal of Watson. At this point, CSK need 161 runs to win in 80 balls, a required run-rate of over 12 runs per over. On top of this, Vijay is dismissed next over by Shreyas Gopal.

The issue is that only two CSK batsmen score at over 10 runs per over or more in the middle overs since 2018: Watson (dismissed) and Deepak Chahar (low sample size)

Sure, some of them make up in the death overs but aside from Faf du Plessis, none of them even have a runs per over of more than seven. CSK don’t believe they are out of contention here and know they need quick runs as well while also countering the two leg-spinners – Gopal and Tewatia. Curran, who is quick off the blocks as we saw against Mumbai Indians, walks out. Perfectly logical (similar move tested last game with success) and quite in sync with the need of the hour. 

Curran lasts just eight balls in the innings, facing six of those and scoring 17 off it. The required run-rate when he walks in is 12.72. The required run-rate when he walks out is 12.53. Curran made 17 in 6 balls, a runs per over of 17 and during his stay at the crease – 8 balls – CSK scored at 15.83 runs per over. 

But the required run-rate hasn’t really come down much as Curran lasted only so many balls, so CSK’s chances in the game haven’t improved much, if at all any. 

                     Did MS Dhoni come in too late?

The question at this point is does MS Dhoni come out and if he comes out, how beneficial it is for the team. As Dhoni later explains in the post-match presentation ceremony, he hasn’t batted in a long time. 

“I haven’t batted for a long time. 14-day quarantine doesn’t help (why he isn’t batting higher). Also wanted to try different things, give opportunities to Sam. Have the opportunity to try different things,” Dhoni had said.

At 39, Dhoni is definitely in the twilight of his career, urgently pushed from all quarters to jump from the precipice. He recognised he isn’t the batsman of old a long time back and batting within his limitations has always been the mantra. Dhoni knows if he steps in at this stage, CSK are done and dusted. 

He also has to contend with Shreyas Gopal and Rahul Tewatia – both leg-spinners – who have four overs between them. Dhoni scores at a rate of 6.19 runs per over against leg-spinners in the IPL since 2018 in the middle overs. His overall scoring rate isn’t great either as we saw in the earlier graphic.

Ruturaj Gaikwad is sent up the order, but he perishes in a hurry looking to take the attack to Tewatia off the very first ball. Chennai’s chances are dented further, but it hasn’t changed enough for them to totally give up either. 

CSK Dhoni du Plessis

       Faf du Plessis also took too long to accelerate

Kedar Jadhav steps in alongside Faf du Plessis, but the two manage to score just nine runs in the next two overs. Now, the equation has come down to 131 needed in 9 overs, a required run-rate of 14.5. Jadhav makes up with a 15-run over but it’s followed by a seven-run over and a few wasted balls in the over after that where even a free-hit contributes just one run. 

Jadhav is dismissed at this point and the required run-rate is now 103 required off 38 balls!

Now, there are teams that win from these positions, but CSK aren’t one of them. They still could try, but the odds of them winning are pretty low. Take this for instance. The Andre Russell show against Royal Challengers Bangalore last season at Chinnaswamy Stadium saw Kolkata Knight Riders take 54 off 18 balls to win the game, an effort that was lauded as almost a one-off. 

There indeed aren’t way too many instances of teams scaling such feats. Double the target KKR had with the number of balls and you almost arrive at the equation Chennai are faced with minus Russell and plus Archer. They also need to sustain that kind of rate over double the period Russell and KKR did. The odds of that – given the batsmen to come and the one in the middle (du Plessis is on 17 off 18 balls at this point) – are pretty low.

Dhoni Archer

Dhoni against Archer was a difficult match-up for CSK

Here, Chennai give up. They send MS Dhoni, who is by self-proclamation, out of touch. They could have sent Jadeja or Deepak Chahar but Dhoni’s form through the rest of the season is more important to them than trying and winning a game. 

Let me explain that last statement in terms of how a tournament like this is set up. 

Each team has 14 games and winning all games isn’t as much a priority as setting themselves up to winning enough games to ensure qualification. Losses are taken heavily by management and franchises in general, but not at CSK. Their whole setup – from trying to maximise wins at home in Chepauk to consistently giving chances to put of form players – is tuned to qualify. If given a choice, they would stay away from playing on quick wickets or strong teams. There are no overreactions to defeats unlike at other franchises because CSK are aware they can “make up”. 

This isn’t just in sync with winning and losing games. It also lines up perfectly with their team strategy as such. “We will never be a great fielding side, but we can be a safe fielding side,” Dhoni had said in a post-match press conference last season. “We might bleed a few runs here and there, but as long as we use our experience, we’ll make it up with our batting and bowling.”

Chennai eye qualification to the play-offs and the means don’t really matter to them. Their whole setup, when playing in India, is to try and win as much as they can at home and sneak in 2-3 wins away to qualify. At Chepauk, Chennai have won 41 out of 59 matches with a team built up to thrive in those exact conditions. They may not win often at Wankhede or Mohali, but they make up for that with wins in Feroz Shah Kotla or the Sawai Man Singh stadium.

That they have qualified 10 times out of 10 to the play-offs despite them being labelled “Dad’s Army” in recent times for the kind of retired players they assembled show CSK have a near fool-proof method.

To win leagues, you don’t need to win all matches. This is easily explained by the tweet below. 

It shows that winning all games is secondary to winning enough games and then being prepared enough to close out play-off matches. 

Now, Dhoni comes out at Sharjah against RR with the sole intention of getting some much-needed match practice under his belt. At 39, having been away from cricket for a year, and the target seemingly unattainable, there is no better time for Dhoni to warm up in a match situation. 

Sure, Dhoni can try to attack from ball one too alongside Faf du Plessis. But the odds of him surviving some wild hoicks aren’t that great and a cameo then wasn’t going to help du Plessis anymore in the pursuit of the target. 

Note that du Plessis hits two sixes in a 16-run over off Rahul Tewatia soon after Dhoni walks in. Dhoni takes three singles and a dot by the end of the 15th over. Surely, du Plessis’ onslaught had brought the required run-rate down? No, it hasn’t. On the contrary it has jumped up from 16.6 (at Dhoni’s arrival) to 17.2. 

Against Archer, match-up touted to trouble Dhoni already, the former India captain swishes wildly at one and missed and leaves another bouncer assuming it would be called an overhead wide. It wasn’t. 

By the end of the 17th over, du Plessis has reached his fifty – after three sixes off Jaydev Unadkat – and CSK still need 58 in three overs. Dhoni turns over the strike to du Plessis first ball off each of the next three balls he faces unti du Plessis’ dismissal.

Now, the game (38 off 7 balls) is well out of reach and Dhoni, who had settled down and warmed up enough to feel confident of hitting his straps, clubs Tom Curran for three back-to-back sixes in the final over. He finishes on 29 off 17 balls and is accused of trying to “maintain his strike-rate”.

For the record, du Plessis himself was on 9 off 11 balls (like Dhoni was on 9 off 12 balls) at an earlier stage in the innings and wasn’t scoring at over six runs per over until the 15th over in the innings. 


The short summary of what is called a bizarre run-chase from CSK is that at the point of Dhoni’s entry, CSK had already lost hopes of winning the game. Did they give up too easy? Sure, they did. They gave up the GAME too easily while putting themselves in the best position to maximise their returns in the remaining games in the season, the larger picture.

The odds of CSK winning from the position they were in when Dhoni walked in were pretty slim and not worth aiming for as much as trying to get their team in shape for the other 12 games in the league stage.

Note that I never brought up the net run rate in the entire discussion. While it remains a factor, it isn’t why CSK or Dhoni (or Faf du Plessis) were playing the way they did.

*With stat inputs from Sudheesh G