Since the very inception of the tournament, Chennai Super Kings (CSK) have been a standout feature among teams in the IPL. They have made it to the playoff stage in every single season of the Indian Premier League that they have appeared in and can be considered as the most successful team in the league.
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While it is true that Mumbai Indians have won the most IPL titles (most recently adding another jewel to their crown after beating Chennai in the final in 2019), Chennai Super Kings boast of the highest win percentage among all teams in the Indian Premier League- 61.28. They are the only IPL team to qualify for the playoff every season and have been in the final a record eight times! CSK also ended up winning the Champions League Twenty20 in 2010 and 2014. Chennai Super Kings are the second most successful brand in the IPL after the Mumbai Indians and have several records to boast for in the tournament.
But what makes them so good?
There are the obvious reasons on the surface which get talked about a lot, like retaining the core and the leadership surrounding the side, but we’ll come to that later. In order to explore what truly and really makes CSK successful underneath the surface, we need to take a look at the history of the structure of the IPL and how one change to the system in 2011 helped CSK to build such a consistent and successful franchise.
The IPL was conceived with the idea of making it the most high-profile franchise-based cricket competition the world has seen and it has managed to accomplish that over the last ten years since its inception. Since it is a franchise-based league, it was founded on the idea of providing parity to all the franchises in the league. That stands out as the USP of any franchise-based competition in sports. It was dictated that every franchise would get a fixed purse from which they could spend and invest in players.
This promoted a certain degree of equality in the league as the teams would depend on the performances of the players they’ve invested in to find success. The basic idea was retained- anybody could beat anybody in the IPL which gave it a thrilling, keep-you-on-the-edge-of-your-seat uniqueness.
This factor reigned true in the first three seasons of the IPL when teams like Deccan Chargers and Royal Challengers Bangalore which ended up at the bottom of the table in the very first season ended up advancing to the final of the second season which was held in South Africa.
Chennai Super Kings had a good run in the first three seasons, winning the title once. It was mostly down to getting hold of one of the best captains of white ball cricket in MS Dhoni and making some sensational purchases in Indian names like Suresh Raina and Lakshmipati Balaji and possessing a number of star foreigners like Matthew Hayden, Mike Hussey and Muttiah Muralitharan. They were a blockbuster side and one that showed plenty of promise.
However, the landscape of IPL changed in 2011, which enabled CSK to get a hold of the tournament and end up being its most consistent franchise.
Two new franchises were introduced that year as the IPL expanded – Pune Warriors India and Kochi Tuskers. While these two teams are now defunct, in order to remain fair to them, a re-auction of all players was ordered. This one decision completely changed the hemisphere of the IPL and turned it into the tournament it is right now- where no franchise retains a clear identity as teams undergo massive revamps every now and then.
The only way franchises could retain some semblance of a core setup was through the player retention system where they could retain up to four players and each player they retained, his value would be deducted from the franchise’s purse. In the 2015 auction, the player retention system was expanded to five players.
The flawed assumption of the IPL Governing Council that the money being paid to the players would be the only motivation for them in the tournament helped CSK massively as it allowed them to build a core around individuals like – Mahendra Singh Dhoni, Suresh Raina, Murali Vijay, Albie Morkel, Dwayne Bravo, Shane Watson, Ravichandran Ashwin who were retained by CSK over the years for much less than what their market value would suggest.
This way the Chennai Super Kings franchise has been able to expose a loophole in the system that allows them to carry on with the same group of players who have proven to be extremely successful and click with the dynamics of the team. This could be looked as very shrewd planning or could be a sign of the influence N Srinivasan, the de-facto owner of the team had.
The Constitution of the BCCI did not allow board members to have any links to any private franchises. However, Srinivasan, Managing Director of India Cements, which was the principal sponsor for the side, continued to be a figure of influence for CSK for many years until he was involved in a betting scandal along with his son-in-law which led to the suspension of Chennai Super Kings from the IPL in 2015.
The ability to retain core players for less than their market value meant Chennai had more money in their purse to go after star players like Faf du Plessis who would be a marquee for any other team but are just yet another heavyweight in the CSK roster.
The second most important factor is the template with which CSK approach team-building which has proven to be very successful for them over the years. The idea is simple- get phenomenal players who could be well beyond their prime, rope them in around a system with stability and they will perform.
On paper, the CSK squad doesn’t appear as glamorous or star-studded as the other IPL franchises. The likes of Shane Watson, Suresh Raina and Harbhajan Singh have either retired from international cricket or have no future in international cricket anymore. Of the eight overseas players in the current squad, only four are under the age of 30. Imran Tahir, who was their bowler and ended up winning the Purple Cap last season, is 40.
Murali Vijay is 35, Suresh Raina is 33, Ambati Rayudu is 34, Faf du Plessis is 35, Kedar Jadhav is 34, Ravindra Jadeja is 31, Shane Watson is 38, Dwayne Bravo is 36, MS Dhoni is 38, Harbhajan Singh is 39 and Piyush Chawla is 31.
However, when you give these resources who have bags of experience in international cricket to the cricketing brain of MS Dhoni, you get a collective unit that beats like clockwork and is greater than the sum of its parts.
Dhoni’s more-than-a-man aura projects a sense of invincibility that binds the franchise together as a fascinating yet very successful sports team. Affectionately known as ‘Thala’ in South India, Mahendra Singh Dhoni knows how to maximise his resources in the field and get his bowlers to fire on all cylinders. He knows the batting order at the back of his hand and this allowed him to rescue CSK in matches where the opening order of Raina, Watson and Rayudu failed.
For all their big names and heavyweights, Mahendra Singh Dhoni has been their biggest big-game player for as long as once could remember and his captaincy needs little poetry.
Former players and retired icons of the sport Brendon McCullum and Albie Morkel both confirmed this in recent interviews.
“He (Dhoni) plays a big role,” stressed Morkel who retired in 2019. “We all know how big Dhoni is in India. He is one of the best T20 and white-ball players ever to play the game and if you get him as a leader, it is going to bring success as he knows how to get the best out of his players.”
Albie Morkel played under Dhoni for many years and is the third-highest wicket-taker for CSK with 91 scalps.
“It all comes from keeping your core group of players together for a long time and have the same captain, Dhoni, for all seasons except for the two years when they weren’t part of the competition. Consistency is their secret. Over the last few seasons, they have made the finals eight times out of 10,” he added.
Brendon McCullum, who is the coach of Kolkata Knight Riders, also echoed similar sentiments. He believes CSK ‘gives selection loyalty and works on the team they have’ and have a very good blueprint on how to achieve things. “CSK has very little “white noise” around them,” he added.
CSK have found success easily in the IPL because they’ve done the basics better than any other side in the tournament – constant leadership, motivated group of players who play for the franchise, stability, a strong core of players who have a point to prove, and of course, their insane fanbase.