Chennai Super Kings have had their worst season, failing to qualify for the playoffs for the first time in the 11 years they've been part of the IPL. When the Super Kings stumbled with the bat and fumbled in the field in the first half of the season, the usually unflappable Stephen Fleming was visibly frustrated. After the Super Kings gave up five wickets inside the powerplay and eventually lost to Mumbai Indians in Sharjah he said that the ageing side had "run out of juice".
Fleming has overseen the rebuilding of the Melbourne Stars in the BBL and the building of Rising Pune Supergiant in the IPL, but would the impending transition at Super Kings be his toughest challenge as a T20 coach?
"It's a great challenge," Fleming said at the post-match press conference after the Super Kings finished their season with three successive wins. " It's great fun and there's responsibility around it, but when you get the likes of Ruturaj [Gaikwad] come through and some of the players getting the mix of youth and old..."
Fleming looked back at the past to plan for the future, hoping to establish a strong core like how the team management had done in 2008. MS Dhoni, who was the most expensive buy at that inaugural auction, has also confirmed that he's "definitely not" retiring before the next IPL.
"We go back to the same team which Mr. Srinivasan and CSK picked and how right they got it," Fleming said. "We're looking to do the same if we can get a decade of consistent cricket from a side, you're doing something right. So, we're tapping into that and yeah there's big responsibility. Teams now and squads are a lot smarter and they really want what they want, so talent is at a premium. But, it's one of the challenges... good and exciting challenges of being involved with an IPL side."
The 23-year old Gaikwad, who peeled off three fifies in a row, is a "big candidate" for the Super Kings going forward. When asked if the team management could've found room for him at the top in the first half of the season, Fleming reckoned that they had actually rushed him into action too early after he had recovered from Covid-19.
After an extended quarantine period, Gaikwad returned to training on September 21. On the very next day, he made his IPL debut against Rajasthan Royals and bagged a duck at No.5. Three days later, against the Delhi Capitals, he managed 5 at No. 4 before being dropped from the XI.
"No, we couldn't play him earlier, in fact we played him too early," Fleming said. "Covid really knocked him around, we knew how good he was from the time we've had in the last two years; the pre-season [camp] in Chennai was outstanding. One of the disappointments was obviously he got sick and the fact that it hung around for so long, people underestimated what it does to a player physically and mentally.
"We tried to get him into the game really early on, looking back probably it was too soon, so it wasn't effective. We might have pushed him in too quickly and he wasn't quite ready physically and he got outweighed a little bit - some doubts were cast and just got to work with him in net practice and limited practice matches, but we always had in mind he was going to be a key player."
On Sunday, it was Imran Tahir and Lungi Ngidi who had set up the Super Kings' nine-wicket win by restricting Kings XI Punjab to 153 for 6. Tahir, who was the top wicket-taker last season, got only three games in IPL 2020 for one wicket. Fleming explained that since the batting line-up was brittle, in the absence of Suresh Raina, they needed overseas cover on that front and had to rely on the Indian bowlers to do the job.
"We had Josh Hazlewood also in limited games, but what we were in trouble is that we were without our Indian batters, we had to fill those gaps with international players," Fleming said. Whilst you'd like to play all your internationals, you having to fill a gap at the top of the order [means] it puts a squeeze somewhere else.
"So, we had to rely on Indian seamers and only one sort of overseas bowler at a time. It wasn't like we didn't want to play them. When you have one of the best T20 bowlers in the world sitting on the sidelines, it hurts me just as much as some of the experts saying why is he not playing. But, they have to think deeper than that as to what's going on with the balance of the side and that's one of the great challenges of selecting each side when you've got so much talent on the bench."
Fleming was also pleased with how the Super Kings bounced back, after a terrible start, to offer hope for the future.
"We hung tough as a group," he said. "Obviously in the bubble we spent a lot of time together and when things aren't going well in the IPL, it can get a bit toxic. But the players - every one of them - were incredibly committed to what we were trying to do. Some were getting opportunities and some weren't which again is the nature of the IPL. [That] we were finishing on an up is a testament to the players more than anything that they were still committed to respecting the jersey and franchise and finished the tournament well so that we can look back and say 'what if' rather than 'what next'. We've got too many fans as well relying on us to do well and we have an obligation to do that. The players were in a good enough space and tough to repay that."
Deivarayan Muthu is a sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo