Bowling confines CSK to below-par third
Where they finished
What went right
For the seventh time in seven seasons, Chennai Super Kings made it to the last four. Unlike in a few previous seasons - 2010 and 2012 in particular - Super Kings never looked like they might not make the playoffs this year. After losing their first game despite posting 200+ against Kings XI Punjab, they won six in a row. That meant their place in the top four was not in danger despite a patchy showing towards the end of the league phase.
The driving force behind their success, yet again, was their powerhouse batting. Suresh Raina was at his dependable - and explosive - best, MS Dhoni delivered a couple of his signature last-over finishes, Faf du Plessis moved up and down the order as required without much fuss. Those were the old hands. The batting additions, as has often been the case with Super Kings' overseas signings, also fired. David Hussey slotted right in when he was signed up late in the season, averaging 58 in the four opportunities he got. But the biggest pluses came at the top of the order, in the shape of Dwayne Smith and Brendon McCullum.
There was a question mark over this area at the start of the season, with Super Kings' long-term, successful opening stand of Michael Hussey and M Vijay having been disbanded at the auction. Smith and McCullum quickly dispelled any such worries. Prior to the final, they were the only pair to score more than 500 runs in partnership in the tournament, their quickfire 513 runs coming at 42.75.
Their fielding - and outfield catching in particular - was, once again, above par for the most part. The team will also be relieved that there were no off-field controversies directly disrupting its campaign this season.
What went wrong
For the first time in five years, Super Kings did not make it to the final. The run of three losses towards the end of the league phase ultimately cost them - it's always much harder for a team finishing third or fourth to take the title, needing to win three knockout games in a row.
That McCullum was out of sorts when shifted down the order will be something the team management would have noted. Another factor to mull on the batting front would be whether Dhoni batted too low down, too much of the time. But given the batsmen's overall showing, these are but little details.
The real devil for Super Kings, once again lay in the bowling. It said it all that the usually unruffled Dhoni quipped after his team exited, having conceded over 200 to Kings XI three times in three games: "I had belief in my bowling that they will definitely let them score 200 runs."
While fast bowling continued to be their weakest link, this season even the spinners could not stifle the opposition as much as Dhoni would have liked. Even R Ashwin's defensive, leg-stump line hardly helped. The biggest issue, though, was finding an able new-ball partner for Mohit Sharma, who held the purple cap when Super Kings were knocked out. Mohit, who had been bought back after showing promise last season, finished with 23 wickets at 19.65; he tested batsmen with movement early on, and was consistently entrusted with bowling the death bowlers - which accounts for his higher economy rate of 8.39. None of the others seamers could manage more than eight wickets, and the experienced Ben Hilfenhaus and Ashish Nehra were even more expensive, constantly erring in both line and length. Ishwar Pandey fell away once the tournament moved to the more batsmen-friendly Indian tracks.
One. That's the number of matches Dwayne Bravo, who was last season's top wicket-taker and one of five players retained by Chennai Super Kings this year, played for the team before being sidelined by a shoulder injury. Had the big-hitting, pace-bowling allrounder - and his effective slower ones - been available, he would have lent the XI much better balance than it had all season.
It would not be an exaggeration to say Suresh Raina is the IPL's best batsman. He has scored over 400 runs in each of the seven seasons, and he has been fit enough to not miss a single game for Super Kings till now. This time he churned out 523 runs at 40.23, with five fifties, at a strike rate of 145.68. Most importantly, he saved his best for the knockouts. Against Mumbai Indians in the eliminator, with Super Kings chasing a manageable 174, Raina scored a smart, unbeaten 54 off 33, dotted with well-placed singles and twos to keep the asking rate in check. In the second qualifier, Raina went into overdrive from the outset and made the unmanageable look manageable. His 87 off 25 came with 12 fours and six sixes - most of them good-looking, proper cricket shots. Super Kings were a mind-boggling 100 after the Powerplay, and on course for the biggest chase in Twenty20 history. What more could his team ask for?
Ben Hilfenhaus was one of the key components of Super Kings' 2012 campaign. He took 14 wickets in nine games and conceded 6.85 to the over then. Perhaps that is why the franchise bought him at this year's auction for a sizeable Rs 1 crore (US$ 166,000 approx). The other specialist overseas quicks were the lower-profile John Hastings and the green Matt Henry. Add to that Bravo's early exit, the relative inexperience of Mohit and Pandey, and that Nehra has been past his prime for a while now, and you see Super Kings considered Hilfenhaus their primary pacer. Eight wickets at over 30 while conceding over 8.7 an over, though, are hardly the stats you'd expect of a spearhead.
Prior to the final, Dwayne Smith was second on the tournament's runs charts, with 566 runs. While it was no surprise that he was able to brutalise attacks every now and then, what was a surprise was the consistency with which he got Super Kings off to starts, even if he was not at his attacking best; his T20 international average is 19.37, his overall T20 average is 26.01. Here, he scored at 35.37 to the game.
Suresh Raina was in the middle of arguably the best IPL innings across seasons. Super Kings were on track to pull off an incredible, record chase of 227, to make their sixth IPL final in seven editions. There was the buzz of expectation with Kings XI's legspinners and left-arm spinners set to come on, against the marauding, left-handed Raina. Then Brendon McCullum, facing his first ball, poked towards cover and after a bit of hesitancy, Raina decided to go through for the single. George Bailey, with a direct hit from square on, caught him short at the keeper's end. He was out for a stunning 87 off 25, his team-mates produced some ordinary cricket thereafter, and all too soon Super Kings' season was over.
Pacers Matt Henry and Ronit More, and batsman B Aparajith.
Nikita Bastian is a senior sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo