On the eve of the game against Royal Challengers Bangalore on Sunday, MS Dhoni walked to the nets an hour after his team had begun training. He was seen practising his big hits - mostly against spinners - and smashing the ball all around the park. The 50-odd fans, who had come to catch a glimpse of the teams before the big day, cheered almost every time the ball was dispatched. Back spasms had kept Dhoni out of Super Kings' previous match - against Sunrisers Hyderabad on Tuesday - in which they had been consigned to a heavy defeat, and his availability against Royal Challengers was not confirmed.
On Sunday, in front of a full house, those rehearsals paid off. Dhoni turned up, brought out the fireworks and single-handedly almost took Super Kings to a win. He had barely any support from the rest of the batsmen in Super Kings' chase of 162. Having walked in to bat in the sixth over, with the score at 28 for 4, Dhoni shared a 55-run stand with Ambati Rayudu for the fifth wicket, the highest for the side. Where the rest of the line-up struggled to score at a run-a-ball, Dhoni slammed 12 boundaries in total - four of them coming in that 20th over.
Super Kings' form and consistency over the years can intimidate any T20 side. However, the team that has previously had several in-form batsmen and a number of finishers, this season have only one consistent performer - their captain Dhoni. Their dependence on him has exposed a gaping hole in batting the line-up, evident in the three losses this season.
Super Kings' approach to a chase has rather become a convention. One batsman assumes the role of an anchor, whose chief role is strike-rotation, especially in the event of an early collapse. The other batsmen play around this anchor. Often this season, Dhoni has been pushed to play that role. Rayudu, Kedar Jadhav and Suresh Raina - who all have the reputation of being match-winners - have one-odd good score each. While Super Kings have somehow gotten over the line in the first few games this season, the inconsistent form of the other batsmen could land them in a rather dicey situation towards the end of the league stage.
Dhoni is the team's highest run-getter (314 runs at an average of 104.66) this season and has five 30-plus scores batting at No. 4 or lower. He's 11th on the list of highest run-getters this season and the next best Super Kings batsman is Raina, at No. 27, with 207 runs in 10 innings. These numbers should give some indication about the side's batting struggles.
Super Kings' two matches against Rajasthan Royals again illustrate Dhoni's impact. Batting first on a dewy night in Chennai, Dhoni produced a vintage innings to save the team from an embarrassing collapse. His unbeaten 75 took Super Kings from 88 for 4 in the 14th over to 175 for 5, and the innings included hard-run, risky ones and twos, and a big flourish at the end with four sixes in the last over, including three off the final three balls of the innings.
In the away fixture, Super Kings were chasing but their innings followed a similar script. They were 24 for 4 after the Powerplay, with another 128 needed off 14 overs. Dhoni scored no boundaries off the first nine balls he faced before launching into a counter-attack. Rayudu imbibed some of that aggression in the pair's 95-run partnership and Dhoni's 43-ball 58 was crucial to a dramatic last-ball win.
Do these trends and numbers indicate that the Super Kings' line-up is overdependent on Dhoni?
"We've got a really talented batting order, which has been consistent throughout the years," coach Stephen Fleming said after the one-run defeat to Royal Challengers. "On paper, you can see the strength but we've not been able to string partnerships or individual scores this year. What we're bordering on is being a little reckless, trying to find that form. We were being a little bit reckless, and that just comes from guys trying to find form and do the job. But what's happening is we're relying too heavily on Dhoni and Rayudu to patch things up and we won't win the competition if that continues.
"We're happy to be crossing the line, but we'd like to see some form creeping back into the top order."
Super Kings did not have these struggles last year, when they found different match-winners with the bat. Rayudu and Watson enjoyed top form, making 602 and 555 runs respectively, while Raina had four half-centuries, and struck a crucial 24-ball 32 in the final. This year, the side's bowling unit, especially spinners, seem to have found top gear, but the top order is yet to find its feet ten games into the tournament. Could the sluggish home pitches, which have been forcing them to play more cautiously, be one of the reasons affecting them?
"It can, and we've been very conscious of that," Fleming said. "We played on Chennai tracks which were difficult to find form on. It was tough to keep the momentum. So, we train well on the grounds that we've gone to, to see if they're faster or more friendly batting conditions. But it's just getting a little bit of form back. You can't try too hard, so it's very hard to try and deliver messages when on the one hand the game, we've got to be positive and aggressive and take calculated risks.
"Maybe we're just missing the 1% in between, so we're looking to hit our way into form rather than just work our way into form, and we're getting great examples from Dhoni and those partnerships in the middle, but it's taking a little bit of time to sink in. So we'll go back to Chennai and it's going to be a grind, but if that's what it's going to take, then we have to grit our teeth and do it."