An error-strewn IPL final resulted in a chaotic finish, leaving Chennai Super Kings needing nine off the last over against Lasith Malinga. How did it even get to that point? That was Super Kings coach Stephen Fleming's immediate reaction after his side faltered at the final hurdle.
Shardul Thakur had let rip bouncers and ambushed Quinton de Kock and Krunal Pandya. A third Thakur bouncer could have had Hardik Pandya on 4 had Suresh Raina not misjudged a skier at cover. When asked if those three balls from Thakur were among the best in the final when looked at in isolation, Fleming nodded in approval. Thakur was so good that Imran Tahir - Super Kings' MVP and top wicket-taker of the season - got just three overs despite dismissing Suryakumar Yadav and Ishan Kishan, who had toppled Super Kings in the first qualifier at Chepauk.
But Raina's drop allowed Mumbai Indians to regroup, and Hardik and Kieron Pollard plundered 39 together in 22 balls. Super Kings then regained some lost ground at the start of the chase with Faf du Plessis teeing off and Shane Watson settling down. But, Raina's painstaking 8 off 14 balls, and the tight run-out of captain MS Dhoni, tilted the balance back in favour of Mumbai.
Watson, though, tried to do a Dhoni. He sat back and targeted Malinga at the death, but with Super Kings needing five off three balls, Ravindra Jadeja pushed the 37-year old for a second run. Watson - his knee strapped - was never going to make it. He had had three dropped chances and one missed run out, but fell with the target agonisingly close. Thakur couldn't get the job done either and was bested by Malinga.
"I think there were quite a few game-changing moments, which is fitting for a final," Fleming said at the post-match press conference. "They [Mumbai] got off to a good start but we came back very well. Our bowling, like it has been [throughout] this season, was very tough to handle and we thought we restricted them to what we thought was a very good score. We were confident at the halfway stage. But to be honest, batting has been the weak part of our game, there is still a lot of work to do. It was an aggressive start but then we lost our way. It took a pretty good performance from Shane Watson to keep us in the game. Look this is what you want from a final, you want it to be down to the last one or two balls and that's what happened today."
When asked if Watson could have just settled for a single off the fourth ball of the last over, or could have just taken it upon himself to take Super Kings home, Fleming said: "These are things that will going through the players' minds for days and months. Watson's was an innings that got us back into the game. We were stopped by some great bowling in the middle overs. [Jasprit] Bumrah bowled some great overs. To get back into the game was great. But we fell short. You've got to give it to Malinga. He just delivered under pressure. That's what it came down to. Yes, both teams can look back and think of doing certain things much better. There were dropped catches from both teams. It was a fitting end to the final, but unfortunately we are on the losing side."
However, Fleming was particularly pleased with the performance of his bowlers given that the attack was depleted by injuries. Fast bowler Lungi Ngidi missed the entire tournament because of a side strain while left-arm seam-bowling allrounder David Willey also pulled out, citing personal reasons. Later in the season, Dwayne Bravo sustained a hamstring injury and was sidelined for a couple of weeks. Fleming revealed that Mohit Sharma, who had been snapped up for INR 5 crore at the auction in December, wasn't "100%" as well.
In Bravo's absence, Deepak Chahar put on a stellar show, excelling at the death in addition to picking up vital wickets in the Powerplay, while New Zealand quick Scott Kuggeleijn won Super Kings the game against Kings XI Punjab in Chennai on his IPL debut. But it was Tahir who led the way, with a chart-topping 26 wickets in 17 matches at an economy rate of 6.69.
"We lost a couple of bowlers to injury. Lungi Ngidi was a big loss for us. There was also David Willey, [Sam] Billings. Mohit Sharma wasn't 100%. So we were short on options but what the players did with the opportunity was great. Deepak Chahar had a good season last year and had an excellent season this year. Imran Tahir, at the age of 40, was inspiring. Harbhajan [Singh] was very good. I am impressed with this department."
Super Kings' batting, on the other hand, was rickety throughout the season, but Fleming defended the top order, saying it was a tough challenge to bat upfront on a tricky track in the Chennai furnace. In the final, Super Kings swapped a safety-first approach for an attack-first approach, but although it seemed to have come off in the Powerplay, they came up short in the end.
"This year in Chennai was tough, the conditions were tough to read, hard to play," Fleming said. "If we look at the aggregate of numbers from our top order, we could have liked a bit more. But at the same time, how much more do you need? We got to the final, we went till the last ball. Of course, we didn't have a good season with the bat. But, there was never a lack of effort. Overall, certainly was a tough season for our batters."
The slow-moving legs will get slower in IPL 2020 and when asked at the post-match presentation if we would get to see Dhoni next IPL, the Super Kings captain replied: "Hopefully, yes". So, what's next for Super Kings? Should they invest in youth and aim to build a fresh core?
"We will give some time for dust to settle down," Fleming said. "I think if you win one title and reach the final next time, we have had good two years. We know we are an ageing team. So, at some point, we just have to look at recreating the side, obviously MS as well. He will be travelling to the World Cup. A lot of talent has been established in other teams. You need to do it carefully and get the balance right when you try to go for players who you think can deliver for us."