After the auction in January, even the staunchest whistle podus couldn’t have helped fear if Chennai Super Kings had erred by going for Dad’s Army. In a format which appears tailor-made for youngsters, Chennai opted for experience instead of youthful exuberance. But their faith was repaid on Sunday (May 27) as Chennai cruised past Sunrisers Hyderabad by eight wickets in the final of the Indian Premier League 2018 at the Wankhede Stadium in Mumbai.
However, it was not a smooth sailing for them. They had formulated their auction strategy keeping in mind the slow tracks of the MA Chidambaram Stadium but just after one home game, they had to shift their base to Pune. Stephen Fleming, their head coach, admitted that it affected their plans and was proud of the way players adapted to it.
“I think we dealt with a lot of adversity really calmly and that comes with leadership,” Fleming said after the final. “I will admit moving from Chennai had quite an impact, given when we sat at the auction table picking a team to play in Chennai conditions. We had to scramble through the year to try and find a combination. We made more changes to the team that we usually would. We suddenly became a seaming-based side with a little bit of spin. It is quite a bit of turnaround when you place your strategy to be a slow team with good players of spin. I am really proud how we adapted to that. I am proud how different individuals stood up at key times, think we’ve talked about that through the tournament.
“I am proud the way experienced players showed their value, not in a smart way, but in a way that’s validated our faith in them. We believed coming back into the competition, the experience was going to be a key component. There were a lot of emotions and desire in the franchise for what had happened. The best people to deal with those expectations are people who’ve dealt with them before. That was a lot of reasoning behind this team. Yeah, we got some criticism for it, but we believed that was our best way of winning.”
On D-Day, it was Shane Watson who stole the show with his unbeaten 57-ball 117, steering Chennai to their third crown. The opener had to work hard initially against a probing Bhuvneshwar Kumar. Fleming gave credit to the Hyderabad bowlers for the manner in which they started but was also full of praise for Watson, who weathered the storm before switching gears.
“Yeah, it was a good struggle, wasn’t it?” said Fleming. “The opening spell was outstanding from SRH. He (Watson) might have been none off ten balls. It was a real battle in the first four or five overs. It was a great final in that sense.
“Shane gradually found a bit of range and rhythm. The boundaries aren’t too big for the big hitters like Watson, (Carlos) Brathwaite and (MS) Dhoni. He kept patience again and didn’t give it away. He knew his power game would get the team out of trouble and it did in spectacular fashion. He got his second hundred of the tournament, he’s got over 500 runs. He has been a star performer for us.”
Watson didn’t have a great season last time with Royal Challengers Bangalore, scoring just 71 runs from seven innings at less than run-a-ball. While bowling, he conceded more than nine an over. However, Fleming said the allrounder’s form during the Big Bash League was the deal-breaker.
“When you look at his season with RCB, he was in and out, and he batted at four,” Fleming pointed out. “I also watched him closely at the Big Bash and there were signs that he was in good form. Every team that I had come up against, he seemed in good form. So the best way to get rid of him was to buy him. I had no doubt he was going to make an impact. Fitness was an issue as it is a long tournament but he is more professional than even I thought. He is a bit broken now. We didn’t have to use much him in bowling but he has got through with one of his greatest performances.”
Before the game, many labelled this contest as Rashid Khan versus the Chennai batsmen. Fleming revealed that they had a plan against the Afghan legspinner and Watson’s innings helped them play out Rashid without worrying about the asking rate.
“It was a little bit of luck with Bhuvneshwar Kumar, he bowled well and went past the bat,” Fleming acknowledged the seamer’s effort as well. “Rashid Khan was a definite plan. We actually have played him quite well, we’ve been more positive in the past but we were afforded the luxury through Shane’s hitting of being more conservative, even playing out a maiden. At that point in time, we had really nullified his impact and that was a key focus for our tactics to win the final, and we did that well.”
Chennai had restricted Hyderabad to 178 for 6 although at one stage, Kane Williamson’s men looked good for 190-plus. Fleming was pleased with the effort from his bowlers in the death overs.
“I thought it was a just below par score. They could have got to 190-200 too, but the two death overs were real momentum-shifters for us. We’re really happy, it’s been an area that’s been expensive for us and to have (Lungi) Ngidi and Shardul (Thakur) bowl two good overs for some nines was a great result. Anything under 180, we were happy with it.”
Chennai were making a comeback after a gap of two years. Fleming maintained that though those were tough two years, the players had always been motivated to perform well.
“I don’t think there’s extra motivation,” he said. “If you weigh up every team, the expectations of winning would be high. The emotions were involved just around wanting to do well and get back into the competition. It was a difficult two years for the franchise, no doubt about it. The desire to get back and do well in the competition was high. But the players were always motivated, it was just a case of harnessing that emotion and making sure our performances and the team itself was sustainable to keep winning throughout.
“It’s a tough competition. It has been the toughest year. The teams are getting smarter with who they pick. The auctions are getting competitive and there’s much more grasp of who franchises want as a player. So this was a tough one. And again, we valued experience for consistency. Guys who could repetitively do it, not just one-offs because we found that the guys who get on a roll – the Rayudus, the Watsons, the Dhonis, the Rainas – they take you deep in the tournament. Good enough to win? Who knows, it’s on the day. Today, thankfully, it was ours.”
Talking about harnessing emotions and the secret behind the franchise’s success, Fleming said, “It’s a lot of things that go along with it. Communication is a big one, and defining roles and giving players clear directions as to what we expect from them. Buying them in the first place, buying them with real purpose, buying character. Rayudu is a good example. I felt there was more to get from Rayudu. Again he was up and down the (batting) orders and in and out of teams. He had the skill-sets and it’s something I valued over time. So I wanted him in my side and to slot him in somewhere, and MS was open about batting him top of the order which was successful, also in the middle order.
“Kedar Jadhav is another who was flexible, but who we lost (to injury), another hurdle we overcame together. But it’s just putting a lot of pieces together. It’s a lot of respect, it’s the way we treat our players. And a lot of communication as well. It is not rocket science, but looking after the little things and making sure that every player in the squad is clear on where they are going to be for the two months.”
When asked if he would be interested in coaching New Zealand, his national side, Fleming ruled out the possibility of the same in immediate future.
“I’m passionate about the game, I’m passionate about my family as well. I’ve got a young family. After playing internationals, I’m devoting time to family and still getting my cricket fix from the IPL and Big Bash, but also a winter with the family. That’s a great balance. It could be a time when they grow up. Like I said, I’m very passionate about spending time with the great players, but at the moment the balance is perfect and the opportunity I’ve been afforded is suiting my lifestyle very much.”