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How Chennai Super Kings filled the Dwayne Bravo-sized hole in death overs

After his IPL retirement, the question facing CSK was: who would bowl the difficult overs?

Deivarayan Muthu
Matheesha Pathirana trains with Dwayne Bravo, Chennai, May 9, 2023

Dwayne Bravo has often walked out of the dugout to keep a close eye on his boys  •  PTI

Dwayne Bravo usually came to life at the death during his ten-season IPL stint as a player with Chennai Super Kings. Is it really a surprise then that the team he is now coaching has the joint-most wickets in the death overs in IPL 2023?
April 3, 2023. CSK are back at Chepauk after four years, and the noise from the crowd is deafening. Tushar Deshpande would later admit he "couldn't hear anything". Lucknow Super Giants are 136 for 5 in 14 overs, chasing 218. Nicholas Pooran has zipped away to 18 off ten balls. CSK take a strategic time-out. Bravo runs on to the field with a message for Deshpande for his battle against his CPL team-mate: stack the off side, and bowl wide yorkers.
The yorker doesn't come naturally to Deshpande, but Bravo, having worked with him since IPL 2021, when Deshpande was a net bowler with the side, backs his rookie seamer to execute the plan. Immediately after the time-out, Pooran lays into the left-arm fingerspin of Ravindra Jadeja for two sixes.
Despite that 14-run over from Jadeja and despite Deshpande leaking 18 runs in an 11-ball over in the powerplay, CSK stick to the plan. MS Dhoni gives Deshpande three fielders on the off-side boundary - deep point, deep cover and long-off - including two of his best in Mitchell Santner and Ben Stokes.
Deshpande nails the wide yorker and has Pooran carving a catch to Stokes at wide long-off. Job well done. Rajvardhan Hangargekar also executes the wide-yorker plan well in that game. Two uncapped Indian seamers were performing the most difficult role in T20 cricket with remarkable composure.
"I feel he is a legend," Deshpande recently told CSK TV about Bravo. "He's the No.1 [now No. 2] wicket-taker in the history of the IPL. So he's got tons of experience to share with our bowling group. He's pretty chilled out, so whenever he's around you or standing near your bowling mark, you feel that you're clear on top of your mark."
Just when it felt like pieces were falling into place in CSK's bowling jigsaw, injuries to their spearhead Deepak Chahar and Sisanda Magala, a death-bowling specialist for South Africa and Sunrisers Eastern Cape in the SA20, shook things up. CSK were already without Mukesh Choudhary and Kyle Jamieson, who were both sidelined from the entire tournament with injuries. Matheesha Pathirana wasn't rushed into action because he was on the road to recovery, having tested positive for Covid-19 in New Zealand.
Pathirana slotted into the side for the game against Royal Challengers Bangalore at the Chinnaswamy Stadium. Despite a blazing start from Faf du Plessis and Glenn Maxwell, Pathirana closed out the game for CSK with his variations from a unique side-arm action.
Whenever Deshpande or Pathirana have operated at the death this season, Bravo has walked out of the dugout and stationed himself at the boundary to keep a close eye on his boys. At Chepauk, he often sits down near the straight boundary along with the ball boys, and watches Pathirana and Deshpande do the dirty work that he himself used to do.
At the CSK nets too, he gets Pathirana and Deshpande to execute yorkers with the old ball while Eric Simons, the bowling consultant, polishes their new-ball skills.
Even at the CPL, during his stint with St Kitts & Nevis Patriots, Bravo often posted himself at mid-on or mid-off, and mentored left-arm seam-bowling allrounder Dominic Drakes. Bravo has also mentored young West Indies bowlers at the Super50 competition, and has become the go-to man for the up-and-coming bowlers across the world.
When Chahar was out injured, Bravo helped Akash Singh settle into the side. The camaraderie between the two was on display when Akash pulled off an impersonation of Bravo's jig on his 21st birthday. This video, released by CSK, ends with Bravo joking, "I'm not teaching you anything again".
Like Pathirana, Akash wasn't rushed into action. After Chahar had hurt his hamstring, he had recommended his former Rajasthan team-mate Akash's name to the CSK management. Akash had a fairly smooth initiation: after trialling with CSK, he bowled regularly at their nets and gained confidence before making his franchise debut for them this season.
Akash joined Deshpande, Choudhary, Prashant Solanki and Nishant Sindhu as net bowlers who have recently made it to the main side. And at a press conference, Simons suggested that they're big on the growth of their net bowlers.
"We often talk about trying to create a family at CSK, and part of our family are the net bowlers," Simons had said earlier this month. "They're not just guys who just come and bowl. We chat with them, and we advise them as much as we can. All the time we're looking [for the next CSK bowler].
"In this country, there are so many unbelievable cricketers out there who bowl to us in the nets, and sometimes you unearth them for different reasons. Sometimes it's just their mindset, sometimes it's the way they do certain things, but I like to believe they feel comfortable in our environment, and feel it's not just a case of serving the batsmen but also serving for them to grow. That environment is the initial simulation for them."
Once Chahar was fit again, he took over from Akash and took care of the powerplay, which allowed Dhoni to reserve Pathirana for the second half of the innings. Chahar's return also enabled Dhoni to hold back an over or two of mystery spinner Maheesh Theekshana for the death. And as the season progressed, Deshpande improved in the slog overs. In the first seven games of the season, he conceded 12.32 an over during this phase, but that economy rate dropped to an acceptable 9.81 in the second half of the league stage.
"I think when it comes to death bowling, confidence is a very important factor," Dhoni said after CSK had sealed their playoffs spot. "If you see Tushar from the first game till now, he's somebody who has developed that death-overs bowling. And I feel the main reason is that confidence. They all execute what is needed but how many times you can execute under pressure - that's the main thing. When you have that confidence behind you, you can execute more often than not.
"So I feel when you keep playing with the same guys… that also helps. But behind the scenes, a lot of work goes on death bowling as to what needs to be done, and I feel the bowlers have taken that responsibility. Not to forget, Pathirana is someone who is quite natural when it comes to the last three-four five overs, so that is one less headache."
After Bravo's IPL retirement - and the auction that followed - the biggest question facing CSK was: who would bowl the difficult overs for them? A rookie Sri Lankan fast bowler, who has a bit of Lasith Malinga about him, and an uncapped Indian seamer, who has a bit of Shardul Thakur about him, have answered that question, with help from Bravo himself.

Deivarayan Muthu is a sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo