The mark of Mahendra Singh Dhoni’s captaincy, for India or Indian Premier League (IPL) franchise Chennai Super Kings, has been the certainty over his playing eleven. Tinkering with the side isn’t his style. That helped mould a core group that netted CSK two titles, making them one of the most successful IPL franchises.
When Chennai were suspended for two years with Rajasthan Royals and two new teams floated, the big question was how Dhoni’s methods would work with the Rising Pune Supergiants. Five matches on, and after the fourth straight defeat, his leadership is under test.
From the CSK group, Pune picked Dhoni, R Ashwin, Ajinkya Rahane, Albie Morkel, Faf du Plessis and coach Stephen Fleming. Gujarat Lions named Suresh Raina the skipper with former CSK players Ravindra Jadeja, Brendon McCullum, Dwayne Bravo and Dwayne Smith coming on board.
The Lions have made a bright start, but Dhoni has been handicapped by two factors.
His main bowler, R Ashwin, has taken one wicket in five games. The off-spinner is enduring a rough patch, and hasn’t bowled his full quota of overs in three matches. Young leg-spinner Murugan Ashwin, having bowled his full quota of over in four matches and taken seven wickets, has stolen a march over him.
Picking the four overseas players in the eleven is a juggling act. Here, Pune have missed the all-round skill of Bravo. Faf du Plessis has clicked as opener but Aussie skipper Steve Smith (5, 38, 4, 31) hasn’t provided the middle-order thrust like Raina used to.
Frontline seamers Irfan Pathan, Ishant Sharma and RP Singh too have not clicked. RP played in the first two matches, and has one wicket to show at an economy rate of around 10. Irfan played one game, and bowled one over. Ishant played in four matches, but after going wicketless in two, was dropped for Sunday’s tie against KKR.
All this has forced Dhoni and Fleming to continue their trial and error methods. “Because we’re a new team, we’re trying to understand what combination is going to work in what conditions,” Fleming said after the loss to KKR. “It’s not ideal but when you have a new squad, it’s about learning how players react, and trying to find the patterns that work for you. If we were able to win two-three in a row, then we’d probably have settled down, but we’re still searching a little bit and we’re conscious of it.”
He criticised the spinners. “We’re not playing winning cricket and that’s what matters. There was a lot of assistance for the slow bowlers, but we didn’t adjust, didn’t use that spin, didn’t create enough pressure and we kept Kolkata in the game. Our fielding and bowling, slow bowling in particular during the middle overs, was found wanting.
“Today was disappointing (for R Ashwin). He could have played a key role. But in terms of his line in the first six overs, he just struggled to get to grips with the pace and line he wanted to bowl.”