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CSK intertwine the new with the old in rise back to the top

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The Sharjah curtains of IPL 2021 raised to reveal the same well-worn set in yellow. The same old director orchestrating, the same faces in the cast, but by the end of the performance, while the audience could claim to have known the climax, there was no escaping the fact they weren’t familiar with every chapter and verse.

They are not used to expecting new storylines at the Chennai Super Kings and once MS Dhoni made a typically understated entrance and his team-mates moved in choreographed order to their positions amid the blaring of the IPL entrance theme, the game unravelled in a familiar beat.

Deepak Chahar and Josh Hazlewood opened the bowling and on a new-ball wicket at Sharjah and Royal Challengers’ openers Virat Kohli and Devdutt Padikkal got off to a flying start.

Perhaps the T20 game will evolve further with more sides stacking up efficient power hitters that allow those in the middle to keep going and not allow the bowlers any respite. CSK themselves appear to be headed there but more on that later. RCB revealed they aren’t there yet and Dhoni, a cricketer steeped in the T20 game, found a way to salvage a position where the opposition openers had put on a century stand in 11.1 overs.

It is said that Dhoni doesn’t do matchups. He relies instead on his instincts and his reading of situations to make his decisions. Maybe they are instincts after all; but using Moeen Ali just against Quinton de Kock for just one over in Delhi and then in the return fixture, using him exclusively against left-handers Ishan Kishan, Saurabh Tiwary and Krunal Pandya and bringing back Hazlewood for Kieron Pollard might also fall under the ambit of matchups in the data world.

Today, against a right-hand dominant line-up, Moeen didn’t bowl at all. Novelty came in the form of Dwayne Bravo, who was bowled as early as the eighth over. There was evidence in Hazlewood’s opening spell that cross-seamer and cutters landed on a hard length were difficult to strike against and in Bravo, Shardul Thakur and Deepak Chahar, CSK had just the profile of bowlers to rotate from one end and rein in RCB.

The other end was a little more fraught with risk with RCB’s only left-right pair lasting beyond the PowerPlay. With Kohli the more likely of the two RCB players to bat through and go through the gears, the matchup advantage fell to Ravindra Jadeja. The left-arm spinner hit just the right lengths and speeds and with a little help from RCB unwilling to kick-on just yet, got away by conceding just 21 off 14 to Padikkal and 10 off 10 to Kohli.

That control allowed Bravo and Thakur to then feast on a slowing track and RCB’s desperation to overcome the lull. The combination of the two gave RCB a symbolic reading of 66/6 in the second half of an innings that promised so much more.

The devil though is in the details. CSK needed 78 from their own second half, now on a pitch that was another 10 overs old. They were also up against a three-prong spin attack. Two of them, Yuzvendra Chahal and Glenn Maxwell, had claimed the well-set openers and the four overs after the PowerPlay had brought only 19 runs.

Even with the advantage of a known target in front, the situation warranted the excited squeals that the stump mics were throwing up. The CSK of last season, and some older others too, may have allowed themselves to see out the spin threat and take the game deep and in the process keep the opposition in the game. But this, in the words of Eric Simmons, is a new CSK that bats deep and takes “a very different” approach to T20 batting.

Ambati Rayudu walked in at four to create a left-right pair with Moeen Ali and clubbed the first ball he faced from Maxwell for four. In the next over Moeen took on Chahal and hit him over extra-cover for six. Unwilling to relent their matchup dominance, two more slog-swept sixes followed, off Maxwell from Rayudu and off Wanindu Hasaranga from Moeen, effectively reduced the chase to a run-a-ball affair with seven overs to go.

“What went wrong in the last IPL was a tremendous lesson for us. But you have to learn the lessons and I think we did,” Simmons said. “The balance of our team is really good. Our batting, the way that we have come out and played with the sort of aggression that we do… We have put together a well-balanced team. We have learnt our lessons from the previous IPL here, where we played a different brand of cricket.”

There was a reprise of the old CSK right at the end when Suresh Raina and Dhoni walked off the field after polishing off the remains of the chase to put CSK on top of the table, but that they did so with 11 balls to spare on a tough wicket after conceding a century opening stand also revealed so much that is new.

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