From agony to ecstasy
The story of Chennai's campaign can be broadly split into two halves. Their position at the end of seven league games was one above the tournament's whipping boys. Their objective for the next seven was simple - win as much as you can. Executing those plans required sound planning, an un-emotional approach to selecting an XI, willingness to experiment and most of all, making the best use of available resources. Beyond Suresh Raina and Muttiah Muralitharan's success, the sub plots in Chennai's success were scripted by the less-established players, who were more than just stage hands in the production. Here are the turning points in Chennai's come-from-behind journey.
The slow men
After four consecutive defeats, Chennai returned home to start their revival. On a slow pitch, the duo of Shadab Jakati and Murali choked the batsmen with nagging accuracy to limit a power-packed Bangalore to 161. Jakati seized his chance after R Ashwin looked off-colour in the initial games and Murali used the tactic of bowling fuller deliveries from around the stumps to prevent the batsmen from muscling the ball. But the discovery of the season was Ashwin, who took his omission in the right spirit and managed to win Dhoni's confidence in giving him the new ball.
Against Mumbai, Ashwin bowled flatter deliveries as a defensive option. Wickets were a bonus. Ashwin's four-over figures over three games read - 2 for 22, 2 for 13, and 3 for 16. He had plugged the leak in scoring in the Powerplay and Dhoni's tactic proved a masterstroke. Ashwins' performance also encouraged Jakati to give his best, finishing with 13 wickets, two behind Murali. Ashwin took 13 as well, but at the priceless economy rate of 6.10.
Chennai made no secret of their inclination towards spin when they fielded three specialists in the semi-final and final. It's not often you see a spinner bowl a maiden in a Twenty20 final, and Ashwin did just that. The occasional carrom ball, clever variations in flight and tactic of stopping at the bowling crease to get the batsman thinking twice set him apart.
When Doug stepped off the plane....
Andrew Flintoff's pull-out was on expected lines, but Jacob Oram's withdrawal to injury was a shock to the franchise. There didn't seem to be a contingency plan in place for the injury-prone allrounder when the auction took place. The management ought to have bid more aggressively for either a world-class bowler or allrounder but instead settled for Justin Kemp, who hadn't played international cricket for two years. Doug Bollinger had made rapid strides for Australia as a tearaway left-arm quick, and the countdown began for his arrival once Chennai netted him weeks after the auction. Chennai's fast bowling was a shambles. Albie Morkel was thrust in a role he wasn't accustomed to - opening the bowling - and his length bowling was duly smacked. The less said the better of the Indian bunch of Sudeep Tyagi, L Balaji and Manpreet Gony.
Arriving from New Zealand in early April, Bollinger fought off jet lag and oppressive humidity to concede just 15 runs in his first four IPL overs. Add a spectacular boundary's edge catch to that and the chants got louder and louder for the debutant. Had it not been for him, Rajasthan may well have chased 247. Bollinger added two elements which were missing in tandem in Chennai's seam attack - pace and accuracy. It counted again in the semis, when he took 4 for 13. One man had managed to cover all the deficiencies in the seam attack and it was the in-form Bollinger.
Vijay lives up to his potential
Undoubtedly one of the batting successes to come out of the IPL. One of the challenges facing the team was finding a suitable opening partner for Matthew Hayden, but Parthiv Patel fell short of expectations early on and was benched. A quickfire 42 against Rajasthan in Ahmedabad was Vijay's turning point. His bludgeoning blows over the on side against Bangalore and Rajasthan, in Chennai, marked him out as a suitable replacement for Virender Sehwag, when he later pulled out of the World Twenty20.
His 127 against Rajasthan featured a record 11 sixes, easily the best match-winning knock by a fringe Indian player in the series. More than the runs and the manner in which he got them, he completely eased the burden off Hayden. Even when Hayden's form mysteriously deserted him midway through the tournament, Chennai had the safety net of Vijay. The confidence with which he played rubbed off on Raina and S Badrinath in particular, who expressed himself with some audacious shots. His safe outfield catching also deserves a mention.
Dhoni's prison break
It was a warrior-like performance waiting to happen. Against Kings XI Punjab in the hills of Dharamsala, Dhoni walked in with the asking rate hovering around 11. It was a perform-or-perish game for Chennai in their last league game. The platform provided by Badrinath and Raina gave Dhoni the licence to unleash a savage assault in a match situation which was delicate till the final over. Two huge sixes of Irfan Pathan was followed by an emotional celebration by the normally ice-cool Dhoni.
That knock propelled Chennai to the semi-finals and it drew parallels to Steve Waugh's 120 at Headingley in the 1999 World Cup. Days later, after the final, Dhoni admitted that he too had all but given up on a semi-final berth but his team owner, N Srinivasan, had no doubt Chennai would make it.
Apart from being the most successful IPL team, they are also among the happiest bunch. Compared to reports of disquiet in Punjab this year and the farcical off-field drama with Kolkata last year, Chennai seem a world apart. Chennai, as a franchise, don't market themselves as aggressively as Kolkata but it doesn't make them any less endearing. Reports from inside the camp talk of how the varied bunch stick together and always maintain a positive energy. Makhaya Ntini never played a single game all season, but was among the chirpiest guys in the dugout. The setback of not playing didn't upset him. VB Chandrasekar, the former India batsman and now a franchise official, wrote in his blog of a conversation between Michael Hussey and Murali on the flight from Delhi to Dharamsala. He said listening to them cover every aspect of cricket was a captivating experience.
Not much was expected of Chennai while their fast bowlers were getting spanked early in the series, with their semi-final hopes receding. Perhaps the lack of expectation eased the pressure and worked in their favour particularly in front of a partisan Mumbai crowd on Sunday, April 25.
Kanishkaa Balachandran is a sub-editor at Cricinfo