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Feature

Gaikwad the captain faces his sternest test yet

How he handles the pressure in an all-important game against RCB could well define his season

Ashish Pant
18-May-2024
Ruturaj Gaikwad's first year as Chennai Super Kings captain has fetched mixed results so far. Not once have CSK won more than two games in a row this season, not once have they lost more than two on the bounce. Apart from the results, there have been issues that Gaikwad hasn't had much control over. He has lost 11 out of 13 tosses and had had to deal with key bowlers missing out through injuries and national commitments.
But the sternest test for Gaikwad's captaincy will be when CSK take on a resurgent Royal Challengers Bengaluru in a game that decides who makes it to the IPL 2024 playoffs.
This is somewhat of an uncharted territory for CSK. Not since 2012 have they been in a situation where their playoff hopes hinged on their final league game of the season. They have either aced the league stage to qualify with a few games to spare or have been knocked out well in advance, like in 2020 and 2022 when they finished second from the bottom.
How Gaikwad goes about handling the pressure of such a crucial game could well define his season as captain.
An RCB-CSK game at the best of times is an adrenaline-pumping affair, and this one comes with high stakes attached in front of a vociferous Bengaluru crowd. But Gaikwad has shown his wares when under the pump. When he was handed the captaincy before this season, probably the biggest question was whether it would affect his batting. After all, it is not easy taking over the reins from someone who has led the team to five IPL titles. Ask Ravindra Jadeja, who was appointed captain at the start of IPL 2022 but had to be replaced midway.
It wasn't the smoothest of starts for Gaikwad the batter, too. In the first four games of the season, he managed 88 runs at an average of 22.00. But probably the biggest issue was his strike rate: 118.91. In a season where the openers from other teams were going at full throttle, Gaikwad was still stuck in the past. He did score an unbeaten 67 against Kolkata Knight Riders but even that came at a strike rate of 115.51. In Gaikwad's defence, though, CSK were chasing only 138.
In his next game, he also moved down to No. 3. It was quite a selfless act on the captain's part, which was done to accommodate Ajinkya Rahane at the top. It was as if a switch was flicked, with Gaikwad whacking 69 off just 40 balls. He batted in that position for one more game before going back to opening the innings. With his confidence back he smashed an unbeaten 108 off 60 balls against Lucknow Super Giants and followed it up with 98 off 54 balls against Sunrisers Hyderabad. His 98, in particular, was a stellar knock as it came in fairly trying circumstances in the Chennai humidity with Gaikwad admitting after the game that it got a "little bit tough to breathe".
He even held the orange cap for a few games before Virat Kohli took over. As things stand, Gaikwad is second on the runs chart with 583 in 13 innings, at an average of 58.30 and a strike rate of 141.50.
Another feature in Gaikwad's scoring rate that has stood out this season is not slowing down a great deal after the powerplay. His strike rate in the first six overs is 141.84, while in the middle overs it goes down only to 133.51. And it's not that Gaikwad hasn't dropped anchor when needed. In CSK's previous game against Rajasthan Royals, on a slow Chepauk surface and with his side in a bit of bother, he shepherded the chase with an unbeaten 41-ball 42.
Gaikwad's calmness on the field has impressed CSK batting coach Michael Hussey too.
"It's been challenging for him. He has taken over as captain which you have got to take your hat off," Hussey said about Gaikwad after the SRH game. "He's taken over from arguably the greatest captain of all time in this country in MS Dhoni and he has been able to come in and do that and keep his batting standards up very high as well.
"Of course, you have to appreciate as captain there are a lot of things going on in his mind. Tactical things, preparation for games, he's got to make sure everyone in the team is in a good place. For him, to be able to take care of the captaincy side of things but then be able to come out and bat the way he has been batting has been a real credit to him and he is showing the world just how good a player he is. I am biased because he is my favourite player."
Gaikwad is used to playing at venues where CSK have enjoyed huge support. While they are likely to get that at the Chinnaswamy as well, it might not be as vocal as some of the other grounds. It was visible on match eve, with hordes of RCB fans teeming outside the venue to welcome their favourite stars. The decibel level is expected to go through the roof on match day. Will Gaikwad the captain and the batter remain unflappable, especially if things go south?

Ashish Pant is a sub-editor with ESPNcricinfo