The Chennai Super Kings empire that was built for repeated success over ten years by MS Dhoni and Stephen Fleming crumbled spectacularly in IPL 2020. They were the first team to be ousted this season, when they imploded to 30 for 6 on a flat Sharjah track against the Mumbai Indians. It was always going to end this way for Dhoni's Dad's Army, wasn't it?
They had defied the odds and proved critics wrong, marking their return after a ban with a third title in 2018. They defied the odds again and almost defended their title against Mumbai in 2019, courtesy Dhoni's leadership and a spin barrage at their fortress Chepauk. However, the cracks kept widening, the slow-moving legs got slower and, inevitably, the team crashed in the UAE.
In a way, Dhoni and Fleming brought this upon themselves. They made no bones about their plan to back experience and win titles, even if it came at the expense of preparing for the future. In 2019, when the Super Kings had already qualified for the playoffs, an ill Dhoni sat out of the home game against Mumbai. It might have been a good opportunity to ease reserve wicketkeeper N Jagadeesan or opening batsman Ruturaj Gaikwad in, but the Super Kings opted against it, with Fleming coming out to the press and saying they weren't there to hand out caps.
Time for a full revamp
On Sunday, both Dhoni and Fleming admitted a revamp - starting with the core group before moving on to the strategy - is overdue. Whether there's a mini auction or a mega auction, whether IPL 2021 gets underway in India or the UAE, the Super Kings will aim to rebuild with a focus on the young players like 22-year-old Sam Curran and the 23-year-old Gaikwad, who could end up with a long stay at the Super Kings.
Dhoni and Fleming will continue to be at the helm while the experience will probably be provided by Faf du Plessis, Ravindra Jadeja and Deepak Chahar, along with Dwayne Bravo and Ambati Rayudu, if they remain fit. It is difficult to see the franchise retain Shane Watson, M Vijay, Kedar Jadhav and Piyush Chawla until and unless there is only a mini auction for 2021.
Also, the Super Kings' fans might have to accept the fact that Suresh Raina, who opted out of this season's IPL, may now be talked of as a former player - it should perhaps not be looked at as a purely emotional move, considering the left-hander has had fitness issues and not played any competitive cricket since IPL 2019.
The Super Kings do have a handful of young players who have shown they can grow and steadily become part of the core. Both Curran and Gaikwad have received praise from the team management. Fleming said Curran has "exceeded" expectations. Dhoni trusted Curran to bowl the tough overs in the powerplay and at the death, though he said the left-arm seamer still "needs to be convinced" that he can execute the wide yorker. Curran's all-round skills are also underlined by the fact that he fields in catching hotspots along with du Plessis and Jadeja.
Gaikwad, too, finished the 2020 season guarding the hotspots and pulling off a blinder to dismiss the King XI Punjab's Jimmy Neesham on Sunday. He made a bigger impact with the bat, becoming the first batsman from the franchise to hit three back-to-back fifties.
Although the team management is yet to be fully convinced by the 24-year-old Jagadeesan's abilities, he did show intent and innovation during his first game this season, when he got 33 against the Royal Challengers Bangalore.
Let Dhoni the batsman take the backseat
The biggest challenge for the franchise would be to identify a player who can go on to take over the captaincy from Dhoni in the next two years. Both N Srinivasan, the Super Kings' owner, and Kasi Viswanathan, the franchise's chief executive officer, have reiterated more than once that Dhoni will be retained at the next mega auction.
On Sunday, for the first time, Dhoni himself said he is not in a rush to retire from the IPL.
While Dhoni the captain remains fresh, Dhoni the batsman has become a problem for the Super Kings. Dhoni will turn 40 next year and, personally too, has just endured his worst IPL season, managing only 200 runs in 12 innings at an average of 25 and strike rate of 116.27. For the first time across 13 seasons of IPL, Dhoni ended one without a single half-century.
Against the Sunrisers Hyderabad in Dubai, Dhoni was sapped by heat and fatigue, coming up short in a middling chase he would have likely aced in the past. Against the Kolkata Knight Riders in Abu Dhabi, Dhoni arrived with his team needing 69 off 47 balls, and they lost by 10 runs.
Dhoni seemingly retains the belief that he can work hard to return stronger for IPL 2021, but he knows the Super Kings need a dependable finisher, which he is no more. But there's one man who has the experience, the courage and the strokes to become a long-term finisher: Jadeja.
Jadeja struck at over 200 in the slog overs this IPL, but he faced all of 135 balls in 11 innings. Fleming believes Jadeja is better suited to arriving late and making an instant statement, but Jadeja might disagree. Perhaps he can man the middle order and Dhoni can instead arrive later and free his arms along with Dwayne Bravo.
Invest in local talent
Releasing players like Jadhav and Chawla will help the Super Kings go into the next auction with a fatter purse, allowing them to invest in younger players and possibly local talent.
Mohan Abhinav, who was among the Super Kings' net-bowling contingent in the UAE, is a legspinner with an unorthodox action, while V Gowtham, the left-arm seamer who bowled at the Chepauk nets, is said to have a good yorker and has just made it to the Tamil Nadu Premier League (TNPL). Gowtham is even being mentored and coached by the Sunrisers Hyderabad's T Natarajan at his academy in Salem. Is it worth punting on them?
In the past, the Super Kings have missed out on recruiting the likes of Varun Chakravarthy, who has now broken into India's T20I squad for the upcoming tour of Australia, after his match-winning performances for the Knight Riders this IPL. Varun had caught the eyes of the Super Kings' batting coach Michael Hussey in the nets before he made a splash in the TNPL. Varun has duly bowled Dhoni both times the sides met this season.
All that said, the manner in which the Super Kings bounced back to finish this IPL with three consecutive wins will lend them confidence. They will be particularly optimistic because those victories were constructed by the young brigade led by Gaikwad. In a way, the Super Kings have already launched their new template.