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Analysis

How CSK's Theekshana and Pathirana have begun to grow into Bravo's shoes

The two young Sri Lankans with unique skill sets are bowling the difficult overs and it is working for Chennai Super Kings

Deivarayan Muthu
22-Apr-2023
The biggest question facing Chennai Super Kings after Dwayne Bravo's IPL retirement and the auction that followed was: who will bowl the tough overs? Tushar Deshpande did a good job in the early exchanges of the tournament - he still bowls at the death for them - but there was still something missing in their bowling attack. They've now somewhat filled that void with two young Sri Lankans with unique skill sets.
Maheesh Theekshana is only 22 but his mystery spin - and carrom ball in particular - is already in high demand in T20 (and T10) - leagues around the world. Matheesha Pathirana is two years younger than Theekshana and is known as "Podi (Little) Malinga" in the Sri Lankan cricket circles because of his slingy action that resembles that of the Sri Lankan stalwart.

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On Friday against Sunrisers Hyderabad at Chepauk, Ravindra Jadeja came away with 3 for 22 in his four overs in the middle, but it was Theekshana and Pathirana who bowled the difficult overs to straightjacket Sunrisers.
Sunrisers had no way out. They had no idea which way Theekshana was turning the ball. They had no idea about the release points of Pathirana. Bravo, who is now Super Kings' bowling coach, was proudly watching all of this from the dugout.
MS Dhoni had introduced Theekshana into the attack in the last over of the powerplay, where batters generally throw their bats at the ball without a care in the world. Theekshana produced a chance third ball with a fast offbreak, but Abhishek Sharma managed to slice it over point. Abhishek manufactured a boundary last ball by backing away but, despite that, Theekshana gave up only ten runs off that over.
Then, when Theekshana returned to the attack, Sunrisers were 86 for 3 in 12 overs. Heinrich Klaasen, who is arguably the best T20 spin-hitter from South Africa, and Aiden Markram, who is one of the most-improved players of spin, were looking to repair their innings. Dhoni brought back Theekshana who responded with a fizzing carrom ball to dismiss Markram. Theekshana doesn't get big turn with his carrom ball like R Ashwin does, but he hits the pitch harder and gets big bounce. The ball grazed the outside edge near the shoulder of the bat and Dhoni snagged it almost in front of his chest.
It was the carrom ball that had also tricked Glenn Maxwell at the M Chinnaswamy Stadium on Monday. Theekshana also has the reverse carrom ball in his repertoire - the variation that swerves into a right-hander as opposed to breaking away. That's just as hard to pick. Ask Finn Allen.
Super Kings' head coach Stephen Fleming, who has also worked with Theekshana at Jo'burg Super Kings in the SA20, delivered him a glowing appraisal at his post-match press conference on Friday.
"He's very skillful. He's very subtle with his skills, so he's always coming at a player," Fleming said. "So you can't really get into a rhythm as a hitter and his deception is his changes of pace. And I think that that just makes them check themselves at times and even today, he was a little bit faster [and got] a bit more bounce. So there are some subtle changes in each delivery that can just keep players on their toes and look, he did very well to get that wicket [of Markram]. Also a good catch by Dhoni.
"He [Theekshana] is also working into a bit of form. He has been bowling well, but in his first couple of outings [this season], he's trying to find his pace at different grounds. And trying to get us pace on this ground, more importantly, which we really wanted to own and dominate. So it was a good day for him and some good learning for us."

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Almost everything about Pathirana's bowling is hard to pick. The side-arm action. The arm speed. The point of release. The rapid yorker. The slower dipper.
Devon Conway doesn't face him in the nets. Ambati Rayudu had struggled to keep out his inswinging yorkers at training, two days out of the match against Sunrisers. Before that, Royal Challengers Bangalore had struggled to keep out his yorkers as he nervelessly helped Super Kings defend 18 off the final over in a game where an IPL-record-equalling 33 sixes were hit.
After having bowled two overs at the death at the Chinnaswamy, Pathirana bowled three overs during this phase at Chepauk. Klaasen was fractionally late onto a skiddy delivery from Pathirana and ended up plopping a catch to extra cover. And when the track offered more grip, he hoodwinked Marco Jansen with his slower bouncers. Job well done in the toughest phase of a T20 game once again.
"Obviously, Matheesha [Pathirana] has got a particular skill with his action and that does help because the modern batsman wants to get under the ball and with his low trajectory; that obviously is an asset," Super Kings' bowling consultant Eric Simmons had said on Thursday.
"Well, first of all, I think his confidence... we were very, very strong in trying to empower the bowler to make decisions in the field. It's very difficult to try and give all scenarios and make the plans for them to have in the field. And technically as well, he's grown tremendously and tactically, he's grown tremendously over the last year when he came.
"Last year he was very, very young in terms of experience. Twelve months down the line and he's arrived knowing he's getting better and, as I said, understanding not just what the technique must be, but why the technique is. That is a very important part of what we try to do at CSK. And he's grown from that perspective."
In the second leg of IPL 2021 in the UAE, Super Kings tried to rope in both Theekshana and Pathirana as net bowlers, but the SLC didn't give them No-Objection Certificates. At the time, Theekshana had just made his international debut while Pathirana hadn't even played in the Lanka Premier League (LPL). Then, in 2022, Super Kings bought Theekshana for INR 70 lakh at the auction and signed Pathirana as a replacement player for his base price of INR 20 lakh after Theekshana had recommended his name to Fleming.
Just a season on, both Theekshana and Pathirana have become Fleming and Dhoni's go-to bowlers under pressure. After limiting Sunrisers to 134 for 7, Theekshana and Pathirana embraced each other at the innings break and walked off together with Chepauk right behind them. #friendshipgoals
Injuries have forced Super Kings to use all their eight overseas players, but if their last two games are anything to go by, both Theekshana and Pathirana have locked themselves into their starting XI - with or without Ben Stokes.

Deivarayan Muthu is a sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo