Playing in Mumbai was going to be their biggest hurdle this year. The flat pitch at the Wankhede Stadium and the short boundaries call for a radical change of CSK's usual plans with the bat. If you are asked to bat first in Mumbai, you must try to go past 200 in your 20 overs; if you're batting second, it's almost certain you'll be chasing over nine runs per over. CSK's batting style wasn't ideally suited to making this kind of score, and that was criticised heavily last season - their intent to break free.
Faf du Plessis has led the charge in the powerplay overs; Ali has been promoted ahead of Raina to take the momentum forward, which in turn has afforded Raina and Ambati Rayudu the freedom to swing their bats at everything coming their way; and finally, Ravindra Jadeja's skills with the bat are also better utilised. MS Dhoni hasn't promoted himself up the order often, and that might be down to the realisation that there are better men in his team for the job he was once best at.
The Super Kings will always be a difficult team to beat in conditions that offer swing or spin, for they have plenty of players with those skill sets in the squad. It's the super-flat pitches that you find at venues like Sharjah and the Wankhede that call for extra pace or mystery spinners.
This season, while the ball has swung a little when new and spun a little when dry, it is Dhoni's smarts with the captaincy that have come to the fore.
Captaincy is like wicketkeeping - grossly underrated when things are going smoothly and in focus only when things are going very wrong or superbly well. CSK's resurgence has a lot to do with the way Dhoni has managed to read the conditions, played the right horses for the course on offer, and then made subtle changes in field placements and bowling choices to amplify the impact of those players.
Let me highlight a few decisions Dhoni took that have led to his team being in a strong position. (Mind you, decisions of this sort don't necessarily yield results all the time but the art of keeping things simple must never be ignored.)
At the Wankhede Stadium he knew that it was all about making the ball swing while it's new, so he didn't hesitate to have Deepak Chahar bowl all four of his overs together when he was on a roll. On the other hand, he also held Chahar back when the ball wasn't coming out just right from his hand.
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In CSK's game against the Royal Challengers Bangalore, Dhoni brought Shardul Thakur on to bowl against Devdutt Padikkal, who was looking a million dollars. Thakur can be expensive but also has the knack of picking up wickets. Dhoni stationed Raina at backward square-leg inside the circle, and Padikkal ended up playing a short ball into Raina's lap.
When Ali got injured, Dhoni added two players to make up. Imran Tahir was brought in to bowl Ali's overs and Dwayne Bravo was added to give the batting some depth. When Ali came back in, out went both Tahir and Bravo, and Lungi Ngidi was called upon for some extra pace.
Ruturaj Gaikwad started this season with scores of 5, 5 and 10, but even with Robin Uthappa available in the squad, Dhoni stuck with Gaikwad - which he didn't do last season, when Gaikwad started similarly poorly.
Raina was exceptional in the opening game but it didn't take long for Ali, one of the few CSK players who started this IPL with considerable game time below his belt, to be sent in ahead of him in the order.
I'm not privy to what's happening in the CSK camp and how Dhoni is thinking or planning this season but it is quite clear from the outside that he is far more confident about his squad and his own batting this year as compared to 2020. Last season Dhoni started with only five bowling options, dropped Gaikwad after a couple of bad games, and took a few other decisions unlike him.
Let's just say that 2020 was an aberration for Dhoni the captain and that now he's back to his mantra of keeping things simple.