The growing influence of cricket analysts and statisticians are among the very many changes that the Gentlemen's sport has witnessed over the years. And with the increasing emphasis on the shortest-format of the game, cricket has become more analysis heavy with teams and franchises assembling their own think tanks to customise tactics for each match-up ahead of games. Yet for Chennai Super Kings, what most kids would have loved to tell their parents and teachers, numbers are just mere numbers. And mind you, this has been the team that has never missed an IPL playoff in all its 10 years of glory, reached the final eight out of 10 times, and have been the champions thrice. So what could be the secret behind CSK's impressive consistency?
CSK surely "don't have team meetings", neither do they "plan", as revealed by all-rounder Dwayne Bravo last season. But he did let out the secret - "We are well led by the best captain in the world."
All throughout his career, MS Dhoni has been referred to as 'calm', 'composed', 'Captain Cool', but the word one word that should more often be used to outline him, especially his exemplary cricketing smarts is 'shrewd'. Dhoni's ability to understand the most difficult situation and act aptly, denying perception and data and match-up analysis, has been the major reason behind CSK becoming arguably the best T20 franchise ever.
Remember the time Dhoni threw the ball to Ravichandran Ashwin in the 2011 IPL final against Royal Challengers Bangalore who had Chris Gayle, a marauder of spin bowling, as their opener. The Windies legend had a strike rate of 183.13 that season while averaging 67.55 after having hit two centuries in that season. But Ashwin dismissed him for a duck in the very first over.
One of the best examples of how analysis never affected Dhoni has been CSK tearing apart the spin misconception. With T20 still a newer format the start of the last decade, pacers were considered attackers and hence contributed majorly in powerplays and death overs. Spinners were only used in the middle overs. But it was under Dhoni that CSK had two spinners operating the powerplay overs - Ashwin and Muttiah Muralitharan. The Indian offie still remains the most economical spinner in powerplays in IPL after Sunil Narine, while CSK has already moulded Harbhajan Singh into a similar weapon over the last two seasons. In 2019, Harbhajan took eight wickets in the powerplays, the second-most after his CSK teammate Deepak Chahar (15). And one of his most interesting dismissals has been against Kolkata Knight Riders' Sunil Narine. The pinch-hitter as a strike rate of 223.9 against spinners and 160 against off-spinners, yet Dhoni offered the ball to Harbhajan. Narine was dismissed four deliveries later managing only a single against the veteran spinner.
Dhoni even knew the impact of a left-arm spinner in the nervy moments of the game and hence reserved Ravindra Jadeja for an over for the death.
Another reason behind CSK's immense success has been what is now becoming a growing tactic - continuity. They had the same captain and the vice-captain, even their coaching staff were former CSK players.
Besides core-group retention, Dhoni also believes in retaining the same playing XI and making fewer changes to lineup. According to a research by Gain Line Analytics, CSK makes 1.28 changes per game, the least by any IPL side, meanwhile, Delhi Capitals, the only IPL franchise to have never reached the final (among active teams), makes 2.22 changes per game. Over 10 years of their participation, CSK have used only 74 players, the least by any franchise, of which 33 have won Man of the Match awards, as per ESPNCricinfo. (ALSO READ: MS Dhoni in Numbers: A statistical look at the legend's illustrious career)
CSK and Dhoni have always believed in backing a player to the hilt with Shane Watson's scenario standing as an epitome. The Australian all-rounder managed only 147 runs in his first ten innings at a strike rate of 112.21, hence putting pressure on MS Dhoni and Ambati Rayudu in the middle order, but Watson bounced back with a fiery 96 off 53 against SRH to win the Man of the Match award.
"If I had been in a previous team I would have been dropped a long time ago," Watson said after the knock. "So, for Stephen Fleming and MS Dhoni, in particular, to keep the faith in me and knowing that I had a really good innings in me it was great."
Watson was part of what fans referred to as "Dad's Army". In the early part of 2018, the season CSK made their return to IPL after two years of suspension, the franchise lined up quite a few veterans in their side. The average age of the squad was 29.68. While it was significantly noticeable that season, CSK have had the tendency to always have veteran cricketers, especially captains from each nation in their sides like their coach Stephen Fleming, South Africa's Faf du Plessis, New Zealand's Brendon McCullum. But age is just a number. All there stalwarts were extremely fit and have been excellent as fielders. Not age, Dhoni relied more on a fitter team. And the result? The "Dad's Army" lifted the IPL trophy that year.
While analysis has and will have a great place in T20 cricket in years to come, but not for CSK, not until the presence of their 'Thala' still lingers around the Chepauk stadium. Years of experience have taught Dhoni what numbers could even possibly show and no matter how accurate they are, he will do what 26 years of international cricket have taught him.