Different teams have adopted different strategies in this IPL tournament and when a struggling Chennai side comes up against a Delhi team that has just faltered against Mumbai, it will be as much a clash of ideologies as a clash of personalities.
At the IPL auction — the first indicator of a team's approach — Chennai were very clear about one thing — they had to have Mahendra Singh Dhoni, no matter what. They paid $1.5 million for his services — the highest for any player by some margin — but were willing to go as high as $ 1.8 million, as sources have since revealed.
The initial part of the tournament showed that this strategy was paying dividends, for Dhoni was the fulcrum of an extremely talented, highly skilled team. He lurked as an ever-present danger, in that floating role that has given international opposition grief. But once Matthew Hayden, Michael Hussey and Jacob Oram departed, the scenario changed somewhat. Dhoni did not have the same freedom as before, and simply had to perform at all times to do well.
With the big-hitting internationals out of the way, opposing teams have zeroed in on Dhoni. Only recently Shane Warne lay in wait for Dhoni and unleashed a three-card trick that would have reduced most batsmen to tears. The last time Delhi played Chennai, in Chennai, Virender Sehwag too held back his best bowlers for Dhoni. While he has consistently been bowling Glenn McGrath three overs in his opening spell, saving one for later, and Mohammad Asif two overs first up and the other two spread across the innings, in this game he held them back. Vijaykumar Yomahesh and Pradeep Sangwan shared responsibilities first up and on Dhoni's arrival at the crease McGrath and Asif returned. On the day it paid off, with Dhoni managing only 32 from 27, sedate stuff by his standards.
On Thursday, in the second Delhi-Chennai rubber, a similar scenario may be enacted, although the circumstances have changed much. When Delhi first played Chennai, the hosts had not lost a game and were lording it over others. Delhi, while a strong unit, were slight underdogs — and this gave them a chance to express themselves without fear of failure. This time around it is Delhi who are outright favourites. Of course, in Twenty20 being favourites or underdogs counts for little. Still, with fans beginning to get solidly behind their teams, franchise owners taking a dim view of sides that are losing and top players scrapping desperately to justify their sign-on fees, every little thing adds to the pressure.