IPL 2019 ended in heartbreaking fashion for the incumbent champions CSK, as they lost by one run against archrivals Mumbai Indians in the final. Last season’s CSK wasn’t the same as 2018’s proud and wounded giant, who returned from a two-season ban with a chip on its shoulder. 2019’s CSK came into the tournament limping, having lost their best pace bowler - Lungi Ngidi - for the entirety of the IPL season. Then English all-rounder David Willey left the team after the birth of his first child. They were forced, more than ever, to rely on aging stars to deliver the goods - and those stars were beginning to feel Father Time’s touch.
Suresh Raina, Ambati Rayudu, MS Dhoni, Imran Tahir, Harbhajan Singh, Shane Watson, Murali Vijay - these are some of Chennai’s key players, and their oldest. Raina is the youngest of those players, at 33, and is far past his destructive best. CSK’s policy has always been to trust in experience, sprinkling in youthful talent where necessary, but the time is fast approaching for CSK to move on from this group. Last season the batting struggled - and Dhoni was required to carry them like he never has before.
The bowling was characteristically excellent, though the very spin-friendly tracks made at Chepauk certainly helped the likes of Harbhajan Singh and the ageless wonder that is Imran Tahir. But, to my mind, this upcoming season should serve as the beginning of a rebuild for CSK - a time for them to look at what comes beyond Dhoni and Raina. And there are options available in that regard - pieces to build around for the future. So, let’s get into it.
CSK’s bowling unit is brimming with talent - Lungi Ngidi is fit again, and while his recent Test series in India was terrible, he is still a terrific T20 bowler. Then there’s the reliable Mitchell Santner, whose slow left-arm bowling will help slow teams down in the middle overs. Santner also took home the Man-of-the-Series award in New Zealand's recent T20 series against England, cementing his worth in the format.
For a change, Santa Claws gets some gifts! All for his exploits in the high-octane T20I series vs England. His 11 wickets at a SR of just 9.8 ensures he's the #PlayerOfTheSeries, even though England walk away with the series trophy after an incredible Super Over! #NZvENG ?? pic.twitter.com/6iaSaRpcdA— Chennai Super Kings (@ChennaiIPL) November 10, 2019
And while he is now on the wrong side of 40, Imran Tahir continues to be one of the best T20 bowlers in the game, and his availability for CSK will be key to their success. Ravindra Jadeja is a lock-in for the playing XI, given his all-round talents, particularly following a strong 2019 with both the bat and ball. Rounding out the list is Deepak Chahar - the Indian pacer blossomed in the last season and has since become a regular for India in T20 Internationals. His reputation skyrocketed a couple weeks ago when he tore through the Bangladesh lineup, taking a hattrick in what would become the best T20 International bowling performance ever - 6/7.
If CSK’s strength is in its bowling, then its weakness is in its batting depth. As we mentioned above, the core is aging, and many of them visibly slowed down in 2019. The decision to release some young Indian batsmen then, is confusing. Neither Dhruv Shorey nor Chaitanya Bishnoi are exceptional players, but surely they could have been given a chance over the likes of Murali Vijay?
And while the likes of Shane Watson, Suresh Raina, Faf du Plessis and MS Dhoni scored close to 400 runs each, their strike rates all dropped significantly, and they had a tendency to start slowly, attacking only after playing 15-20 deliveries. When they got out before they could attack, they usually left CSK in a deep hole, one which Dhoni needed to get them out of. If Dhoni regresses this season, the batting could be in deep trouble.
In that regard, CSK does have two good young players on its books - Ruturaj Gaikwad and Narayan Jagadeesan. They’re both young, up-and-coming batsmen, who should see more playing time this season. They’ve both broken into their respective state sides, and are poised for breakout seasons. Gaikwad in particular is playing exceptionally in the ongoing Syed Mushtaq Ali Trophy. If these two can make a splash, both CSK’s fortunes and their own will change dramatically.
This is also where CSK should be spending its remaining budget during the auction - trying to bring in more young Indian batsmen to begin its rebuild. Overseas talent will be expensive and eat into what is already the second-smallest purse going into the auction. A left-arm pacer like the available Mitchell Starc could be a marquee purchase, but we think that wouldn’t be in the team’s best interests. They should be thinking for the future and trying to emulate Delhi by finding the next wave of Indian youngsters.
As we’ve said several times over the course of this pace, the biggest threat to this team is itself. Last year, the batting was carried to a large degree by Dhoni and the bowling unit. If the core isn’t shaken up in the auction this year, we could see more of the struggles that the likes of Rayudu, Raina, and Watson suffered last season. And this time, Dhoni might not be enough to carry the team over the line.
A worst-case scenario? The batting fails entirely, and CSK misses the playoffs for the first time in its history.
But that could be a blessing in disguise. Plenty of teams in the MLB, NBA, and NFL unofficially take part in what’s known as “tanking”, where the team sheds aging stars in order to conduct a full-scale rebuild around emerging talents. If CSK do somehow miss the playoffs, it might shock the team management into finally moving on from its highly successful, yet ancient stars.