Chennai's troubles start from the top
The nature of the Twenty20 format is such that it leaves an extremely small margin for error - and almost none at the top. The failure of the Chennai Super Kings' top order after the departure of Matthew Hayden and Michael Hussey has been the primary reason for their slip from No 1 in the points table to No 4. The replacements, Stephen Fleming, Parthiv Patel and a rotating No 3 - they've tried S Vidyut and S Anirudha - have failed to provide direction to the innings.
Each of Chennai's first four victories had one of their top three make a significant contribution. Hussey scored 116 against the Kings XI Punjab and 47 against Bangalore Royal Challengers, while Hayden made 81 against the Mumbai Indians and 70 against the Kolkata Knight Riders. In their next three games, apart from a 54 from Vidyut - who did not dominate the Delhi Daredevils bowling attack - only once has a top-order batsman passed 20. In their two most recent defeats, Chennai were reduced to 11 for 3 against the Rajasthan Royals, and 33 for 3 against the Deccan Chargers.
"We have to settle down as a side," Dhoni said after the defeat against Deccan. "Our top-order batsmen played too many shots. They were in two minds whether to go for the shot or not and ultimately lost their wickets playing their shots late. We could not get the right combinations in the last three matches but we should not panic. It is not individuals but we have to work as a team."
The top-order collapses have put additional pressure on the middle, which comprises stroke-makers such as Suresh Raina, Mahendra Singh Dhoni and Albie Morkel. They've had to be cautious and minimise risk for fear of losing cheap middle order wickets and being dismissed within 20 overs, inexcusable in the Twenty20 format. And without taking a few risks, it is difficult to maintain a run-rate of around nine an over for a par score in the IPL.
The batting failures have affected their bowling. The low totals in the last three games - 169, 110 and 144 - mean the opposition batsmen aren't under pressure to maintain a high run-rate from the start. Dhoni has repeatedly said that their bowling is weaker than their batting and the fact that their opponents aren't under pressure has curbed their wicket-taking abilities. Chennai have managed only seven wickets in their last three games and only one inside the first five overs. Their most experienced fast bowler, Makhaya Ntini, hasn't taken a wicket yet and each time their opponents get off to solid starts, the fewer are the risks they have to take against Murali.
The problem for Chennai, though, is that they do not have many alternatives from those who are already playing. Parthiv has scored 96 runs in seven innings but apart from Vidyut and the Under-19 opener Abhinav Mukund, there are no other specialists in the squad. Fleming has also had three consecutive failures but Chennai have no more than four overseas players - Morkel, Murali and Ntini being the other three - so he will continue to play.
Dhoni's options are limited. He said that Chennai would "try different combinations but there wouldn't be many changes". Either he persists with the present combination and hope they hit form sooner rather than later, or he reshuffles the batting order and promotes Raina, himself and especially Morkel, who's been in excellent hitting form at No. 7. Batting at unusual positions might take some getting used to but that is precisely what this high-intensity format is about - adapting quickly and seamlessly.
George Binoy is a staff writer at Cricinfo