Far from their best, but not far from title
Where they finished
Second. They were chasing a hat-trick of IPL titles on Sunday at the MA Chidambaram Stadium, but came up against a determined Kolkata Knight Riders. It did not look as though they would even go that far after a shoddy showing in the league stage, but fortune put them in the playoffs and, in familiar territory, they almost made it count.
Super Kings' strengths have always been their batting and spin bowling. The fast-bowling cupboard has often looked bare. Yet, in 2010*, when the team was struggling, it was the arrival of Australia quick Doug Bollinger mid-way through the season that galvanised the team. Similarly, this season, just when it looked like their campaign was coming apart, another Australia fast bowler Ben Hilfenhaus arrived from the West Indies and quickly settled in to become an important cog in the Super Kings set-up.
Hilfenhaus had missed the previous IPL with injury and, debuting this year, he faced a set-back in only his second game: Super Kings had all but won the match against Mumbai Indians, when Hilfenhaus produced two full tosses and a length ball for the final three deliveries, letting Dwayne Smith knock off the 14 runs his team needed. But Hilfenhaus wasn't to be shaken. In the next game, against Rajasthan Royals, he produced figures of 4-1-8-2 (the '2' being the wickets of Shane Watson and Rahul Dravid), and then destroyed Delhi Daredevils with a spell (3-0-14-3) that accounted for Virender Sehwag, David Warner and Naman Ojha.
It took Hilfenhaus only nine games to take as many wickets as R Ashwin, who is arguably Super Kings' most dependable bowler over the last three seasons. And those 14 wickets came at an average of 16.64 and economy rate of 6.85. In the final, Hilfenhaus cleaned up Knight Riders' lynchpin Gautam Gambhir in the first over of the chase, beaten by a slower one, and then claimed the well-set Jacques Kallis in a tight finish. Much like against Mumbai Indians though, two full tosses at the very end cost his team.
Super Kings bought one player at the 2012 auction: Ravindra Jadeja. They had spent their full purse on him, making him the IPL's newest two-million dollar man. Billed as an allrounder, he bowled more than two overs only six times in 18 games. In the second qualifier and the final, he neither batted nor bowled. And when he did get his chance to contribute in either department, he did nothing much of note. He finished with 191 runs and 12 wickets - of which 48 runs and five wickets came against Deccan Chargers. The Chargers game apart, the only game-changing hand he played was against Royal Challengers Bangalore: he managed to edge away the final delivery for four to third man, to seal Super Kings' thrilling chase of 206.
"We know how to win trophies," Albie Morkel had said during the last stage of the league games, when it looked like Super Kings might not progress. "I think we need the luck element and we will be all right." Fortune might have put them in the final four, but once there, they justified their place. In the eliminator against Mumbai Indians, they looked a completely different side to the one that bumbled through the league phase. The batting and bowling clicked together and, more crucially, Super Kings showed the tenacity they have come to be associated with in testing situations. They were 2 for 1, before Michael Hussey and S Badrinath rallied, and MS Dhoni and Bravo counterattacked to carry the side to 187, a total that proved way beyond the reach of a powerful Mumbai Indians line-up. That performance breathed new life into their season, and suddenly many rated them as favourites for the title once more.
Yes, nothing could hurt much more than losing the final, but it was another defeat that left Super Kings in a much worse position. The team is used to a last-minute scramble to make the playoffs, and up until this year's match against Kings XI Punjab in Dharamsala, was used to coming out on top in such situations. But a batting failure meant they had only 120 to defend on the small Himachal Pradesh Cricket Association ground, with the rarefied atmosphere. If Super Kings hoped to pull off a heist, Adam Gilchrist, returning from a month-long injury layoff, squashed all such thoughts with an unbeaten 64 off 46. It looked, then, that Super Kings, the defending champions, had failed to make the IPL playoffs for the first time in five seasons.
Super Kings had a mixed 2012, with more lows than highs, yet they almost won their third IPL title in a row.
In the league phase, they played arguably their worst cricket in five seasons. The batting, despite power-hitter-packed middle order, repeatedly failed to finish strongly. That meant, once again, Super Kings needed to win four of four to shore up their chances of progressing. And just when it looked like that is what they would do - they had beaten table-toppers Delhi Daredevils and Knight Riders in consecutive games - the Dharamsala flop happened.
Yet, things fell into place. The three other results they were waiting on, amazingly, went their way, and Super Kings sneaked in as the fourth team. And suddenly, Super Kings were back in their champions avatar. After the high of the eliminator, against Daredevils in the second qualifier, they were ruthless. M Vijay produced that one game-changing innings he tends to play every season, and, with the runs flowing, a listless Daredevils quickly faded out of contention. In the final, but for the spirited Manvinder Bisla - or even despite him - Super Kings could have edged home. Still, after the sub-standard showing in the league stage, Super Kings will take second.
The one area where Super Kings consistently outdid their opposition this season was fielding. If you look at their line-up, you'd probably say the only fielding liabilities are Shadab Jakati and Ashwin, and when you saw these two throwing themselves at the ball to stop a boundary (think Jakati in the final) and diving forward to claim a catch (think Ashwin's catch to dismiss Shane Watson), you knew you were up against it in the field. Seeing as they make so few changes to their squad, it's an element of their IPL season they'll be hoping to carry into Champions League T20 this October.
*10.40 GMT, May 29: The article had said 2012, this has been changed.
Nikita Bastian is a sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo