Nearly all the accolades, on social media and on commentary, after Wednesday's match between Chennai Super Kings and Delhi Capitals were reserved for MS Dhoni. The 80-run Super Kings win had it all, when it came to Dhoni: smart captaincy moves, the now-familiar boundary hitting at the death and the blink-and-you-miss-it stumpings. He was named Player of the Match. But he did not steal all the thunder this time. Two old Super Kings hands delivered after a long wait. Suresh Raina scored a well-crafted 37-ball 59 and Ravindra Jadeja's three-dimensional abilities were on full display, too: a 10-ball 25, returns of 3 for 9 and athleticism on the field.
At Super Kings' den at Chepauk, it is Raina who is the crowd's favourite after Dhoni, the Chinna Thala (Junior Leader) to Dhoni's Thala. The cheers Dhoni gets at Chepauk are unmatched, but the only other player who gets close is Raina. He is the highest run-scorer for Super Kings and has consistently been among the top run-getters in nearly every season. This year, however, things have been quite different. Before the match against Capitals, Raina had made 247 runs in 12 games, with one half-century. In the two matches he captained, he looked out of sorts and fell cheaply. Under his captaincy, they lost their first home game of the season.
Moreover, there have been questions on the Super Kings' performances without Dhoni. They have been heavily reliant on their captain, who has done the bulk of the scoring this season. Raina, his deputy, stepped in as captain for two matches but was unsuccessful and there were doubts on whether Raina was feeling the heat without captain Dhoni.
On Wednesday, Raina addressed these questions with the bat, and later, at the press conference.
"I think I've done well for Gujarat Lions as well as a few games for India," Raina said after the match. "Losing him [Dhoni] as a captain is not an issue, losing him as a batter is always difficult for us.
"That's what happened in those games we lost. He gives us a lot of freedom to play and when he enters, he creates pressure on the opposition. I've done well as a captain but I didn't perform with the bat in those two games. When he's not there in the team you see the difference. He's done very well as a captain and a mentor. You'll probably see me more next season when he says, 'Okay, I'm done but now you look after.'"
So has Dhoni given him any hint about the forthcoming season? "No, it's not about the hint. It's as long as he wants to play. You know how he is," Raina said.
And how does Dhoni's captaincy affect Raina?
"See, I've played for India under his captaincy, he knows my game, he knows how to plan in the middle overs. He tells me what to do there. He always gives the right sort of advice. Today I told him I felt confident against left-arm spinners, because [Amit] Mishra was bowling really well and he wasn't giving me any flight with the ball, so I thought let's take a chance and hit a couple of boundaries. I then told Dhoni 'I'm going to go hard at him [left-arm spinner J Suchith] because I feel more confident'. He lets you play freely but at the same time gives advice about certain things, which is good to follow."
At the end of 10 overs against Capitals, Super Kings had 53 on the board and had lost Shane Watson for a duck. The Capitals' spinners were taking control on a slow Chepauk surface but Raina began to change the tempo of the innings, by hitting J Suchith and Chris Morris for boundaries. Once Raina fell, Jadeja joined Dhoni at the crease, and his elevation to No. 5 seemed like another tactical move given Ambati Rayudu and Kedar Jadhav's dip in form. That move paid off as the duo added 43 off 3.4 overs, and helped Super Kings amass 77 runs off the last overs to finish on 179.
"My plan was to just play through the Powerplay," Raina said. "They have a few spinners and good-quality fast bowlers. That was the plan, just to stick and rotate the strike. That's what I was telling Faf too: 'No need to block the ball. If you're not getting it, just be in positive intent.' That's how he hit two sixes. I think it's important to play smart cricket in Chennai. After every six overs, the game changes."
Super Kings' concerns aren't limited to Rayudu and Jadhav's form. Openers Watson and Faf du Plessis also have just one half-century to their name. Raina believed this was due to the tough home conditions, with turning tracks in play at Chepauk since the start of the IPL.
"Last year we played in two different venues. We played in Pune, where the climate was good, and now in Chennai. In Chennai, you need a lot of character especially when it comes to fitness. Mentally, your character has to be up all the time. You need to constantly rotate the strike. If you have wickets in hand you can always score those extra 30-40 runs and that's what we did [against Capitals].
"The weather has played a key role for us. Take Watson for instance, he played very well for us last year. This year here [in Chennai] he's been getting good starts but has not been able to convert. But we've been bowling really well. This is the best bowling line-up we've been having for the last couple of years."