Chennai's home stretch stopped
Winning streaks are capricious creatures. You win a game here, another couple there, and before you know it you are on a roll. The sequence then begins to build momentum; everyone's talking about the fact that you haven't lost in a while. Your fans know it. Your opposition tries to ignore it, but they can't. It plays on their mind, it muddles up their thinking. It liberates your approach and you pull off gambles you would never have thought of if you were in the doldrums. The streak assumes a life of its own, and mows down the opposition like a rumbling juggernaut. Or like an in-form Chris Gayle.
Until it becomes too big to sustain itself, and implodes unforgettably. Not many remember even a handful of the Tests that made up Australia's first 16-match winning streak. But everyone remembers Eden Gardens 2001. Not many can recall the 17 successive ODI chases India pulled off in 2006, certainly not more than those who can recall Dwayne Bravo ending it by castling a marauding Yuvraj Singh. Not even Chennai's staunchest supporters will recall each one of their nine home wins this year, but they are going to be rankled by tonight's coup for a while to come.
Twenty20 streaks are the hardest to build in cricket, given the sheer unpredictability hard-coded into the format. Gayle's seven-match IPL blitz was an exception - it was a case of one man's irresistible form taking the vagaries of the format out of the equation. The longest run in Twenty20s is Sialkot's 25-match unbeaten streak, a wonderfully improbable oddity that fits in with the incredible world of Pakistan cricket. Chennai's streak was the most easily explained of the lot since it was founded upon strong fundamentals: a bunch of robotically perfect bowlers, a bionic top order with the perfect blend of local and international talent, and above all - the coolest captain of them all.
Following India's hiding in England, MS Dhoni doesn't carry that aura of invincibility anymore. Yet, a return to the subcontinent in the Super Kings' yellows was expected to herald a resumption of the winning ways. For 36 overs, Dhoni held all the aces. He won the toss on a sluggish track, he saw Michael Hussey surge through the gears after a cautious start and he himself laid the toppings with a typical cameo. He then made all the right calls on the field, getting R Ashwin, Dwayne Bravo and Suresh Raina to dismantle the Mumbai top order. Chennai were walking to another home win.
During the IPL, every time a key player failed, Chennai had someone else to take up the slack. Against Kolkata, Suraj Randiv bled runs in the 19th over of the chase, but Tim Southee bowled a magical final over. Against Kochi, the top order uncharacteristically misfired, but they had Wriddhiman Saha at hand to haul them to a match-winning score. Today, there was no rescue act.
Raina was ignored after picking up 2 for 6 in two overs, and Shadab Jakati, who has a reputation for coming apart under pressure, preferred. The reasoning, as is always the case with Dhoni, was sound: Jakati's left-arm spin takes the ball away from the right-handers at the crease, whereas Raina would have aided the slog to leg.
But logic tends to fall apart when tail-enders are involved. Lasith Malinga walked out with all of 76 runs in his seven-year Twenty20 career. He lined up Jakati and bull-dozed him down the ground for two sixes, and continued swinging.
And then the moment came: Malinga looked for a third six in the over, and Dhoni fluffed a simple stumping that he later admitted cost his side the game. This time, the captain himself had messed up his lines, and Chennai, for once, were pipped on the home stretch. No one will remember the four dismissals Dhoni effected in the Mumbai innings. Yet few Chennai fans will forget the one that went away.
Nitin Sundar is a sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo