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Match Analysis

Without Dhoni, Super Kings face their endgame

Dhoni doesn't just bat and keep wicket. When he is not there, it's a huge hole to fill and Super Kings look a far less formidable team

When the IPL's fiercest rivalry returned to Chennai after three years, there was a massive demand for tickets at Chepauk, resulting in chaos and a lathi-charge by the police. Several fans had queued up by the wee hours of the morning on April 24 to get tickets to watch MS Dhoni in action against Mumbai Indians.
However, on Friday, Dhoni did not even travel to Chepauk after being ruled out of the match with fever. When Dhoni is front and centre at Chepauk and lets his spinners loose here, he can even take down all the Avengers and Thanos put together.
Without Dhoni, though, Super Kings appear vulnerable - both behind the stumps and in front of it. You saw that during Friday's loss to Mumbai as well during the defeat to Sunrisers Hyderabad earlier in the season.
Dhoni doesn't just bat and keep wicket. He sizes up the conditions, mentors youngsters, helps them cope with pressure and gives them security about their places in the side. Shane Watson was particularly grateful for Dhoni for showing faith in him following a prolonged lean patch and said he might have been dropped "a long time ago" if he had been in another team.
Even when the required rate keeps ballooning in chases, Super Kings know they can prick it when Dhoni is around. When a partnership gathers pace, Dhoni deploys whacky fields and shakes up things. Cases in point: leg-slip for R Ashwin, straightish mid-off for Kieron Pollard in the 2010 final, and more recently he boosted Deepak Chahar's confidence by placing a slip and square gully against Royal Challengers Bangalore captain Virat Kohli. The opposition is always twitchy when Dhoni is around. When he isn't, things can go haywire for Super Kings.
With Sam Billings also returning to England - and dislocating his shoulder - Super Kings did not have a proven wicketkeeper after Dhoni fell ill. So, they entrusted part-timer Ambati Rayudu with the responsibility on a Chepauk turner.
When Evin Lewis was 12, Harbhajan Singh found ripping turn to shave the West Indian batsman's outside edge, but the umpire did not spot or hear the nick. Rayudu rode the bounce and collected the ball, but he didn't hear the nick either and didn't ask for a review. Super Kings missed Dhoni's tact and game awareness. Lewis moved to 32 and put on a crucial 75 for the second wicket with his captain Rohit Sharma at a run rate of nearly eight. It was central to Mumbai finishing at 155 for 4 after a fairly sedate start.
Then, Super Kings missed Dhoni's experience in a chase of 156. Previous match-winner Watson glanced a leg-stump half-volley straight into the lap of short fine leg. Suresh Raina was bounced out by Hardik Pandya while both Rayudu and Kedar Jadhav were undone by Krunal Pandya's arm balls. Super Kings were 45 for 4 in the eighth over on a wearing pitch, but there was no Dhoni to save the day for them.
The other batsmen also lurched from one injudicious shot to another as Super Kings were rolled over for 109 - their lowest total at Chepauk.
Super Kings' batting line-up has been heavily reliant on Dhoni this season. Their captain has been in stellar form, peeling off 314 runs in seven innings this season at an average of 104.66 and strike-rate of 137.11. Super Kings' next-highest scorer is Watson, who has hit 251 runs in 12 innings, of which 96 came against Sunrisers Hyderabad on Tuesday.
"He is a great leader and a great player," Super Kings coach Stephen Fleming said of Dhoni. "Whenever you take that out of the side [it's tough]. He's been a constant for us for so many years that you get into the rhythm of having him there. When you take a leader like that out, there are going to be holes to fill.
"And it's not that we're not trying to fill it; it's just that the hole is so big. It takes a mammoth effort to lift the team up when you're having our best player unavailable. So, it's a psychological aspect as well."
When pressed further if Super Kings' batsmen froze in the chase in Dhoni's absence, Fleming borrowed Dhoni's poker face and said: "I don't think so. But, there's comfort when he's there, but he didn't bat the last game [against Sunrisers]. The [other] players have enough experience to deal with it when things don't go our way. But, at the moment we're not."
However, Fleming was more critical of the middle order that has suffered collapses throughout the season and credited the bowling attack for still keeping them at the top of the points table in IPL 2019.
"The thing that concerns me is repetitive mistakes [from the batsmen]," Fleming said. "So, we're in this situation a few too many times this season. The fact that we're still on top of the table is a testament to our bowlers and individual performances, but we still have team performances left in us.
"In some cases that's exciting, but you don't want to run out of time hoping you can put it in play. With two games left and hopefully finals, now is a pretty good time to deal with it."
In the absence of Dhoni, it was pretty much endgame for Super Kings at Chepauk on Friday.

Deivarayan Muthu is a sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo