Deivarayan Muthu is a sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo
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The Chennai Super Kings kept piling up pressure on their rusty middle order through dozy starts in the powerplay. Another start of this kind on Sunday may have pushed them closer to panic stations. However, finally, their openers shed their conservative approach that helped the Super Kings mow down 179 with plenty to spare, allowing them to break a three-match losing streak.
Shane Watson had managed only 52 off 48 balls across his first four innings in IPL 2020. The chorus for Imran Tahir's inclusion kept getting louder. After all, he was the highest wicket-taker last season. The Super Kings wanted to accommodate both Sam Curran and a fit-again Dwayne Bravo in their XI along with Faf du Plessis. All along, however, they backed Watson. Stephen Fleming, their head coach, kept saying Watson was hitting the ball well in the nets, even though he couldn't quite replicate the same in a game scenario.
Consistency in selection has been their hallmark. Bloodied knee and all, Watson had nearly carried them to back-to-back IPL titles. The Super Kings had backed him in 2019, and they continue to do so. And Watson just showed why in Dubai.
After defending a brace of inswingers from Sheldon Cottrell, he planted his front leg and went downtown for boundaries. This was, as per him, a result of a technical adjustment, of getting his head over his front leg for better transfer of weight into his shots. The tweak was on bright display as he resolutely defended those inswingers and then punished those full deliveries from Cottrell.
At the other end, Du Plessis' aggressive intent was on bright display too. He shuffled around the crease and threw Chris Jordan off his lines and lengths. While he didn't quite middle the balls, the reward for his intent was four fours in five balls.
The first four was a funky scoop off a slower delivery over the keeper's head. The next ball was slower and wider, but du Plessis reached out, had a crack at it, and carved it over the covers for a double. Jordan then hit a heavy length, but Du Plessis swiped this between midwicket and mid-on for another four. He threw his bat outside off next ball and sliced it off the outside half between backward point and short third man. Jordan turned to the slower ball once again, but Du Plessis unleashed a devil-may-care swat that even put Watson in the firing line.
After their safety-first template had failed them, the Super Kings' openers traded it for an attack-first one and rushed to 60 for 0 in the powerplay. Earlier in the evening, when some of Super Kings' fielders were lax on the field, the usually unflappable Fleming was visibly upset. When du Plessis - arguably Super Kings' best fielder alongside Ravindra Jadeja - couldn't get to skied hit sprinting in from long-off in the eighth over, Fleming was very animated. But the refreshing approach of Du Plessis and Watson in the powerplay, however, put a smile on Fleming's face.
"We don't want to shrink back in T20 or search too much," Fleming told host broadcaster Star Sports during the Super Kings innings. "You actually want to get even more confident and positive. And I think you can create luck by doing that and a few things went our way today - balls were flying over the top of fielders whereas [the] last couple of games it may have gone off to hand. "Sometimes, a positive attitude can be the key to that. All we are trying to do is to give a little more surety around their positions and then ask them to be confident and play naturally."
Even after the field restrictions were relaxed, Watson and Du Plessis kept going after the Kings XI attack and kept pinging the fences. In all, there were only three boundary-less overs in the chase before the Super Kings openers sealed it in the 18th over. It made sense, given the Super Kings bat so deep that they have Piyush Chawla, Deepak Chahar and Shardul Thakur at Nos. 9, 10, and 11. All three players had made match-winning contributions with the bat in the IPL in the past. The return of Bravo from a knee injury has also spruced up their batting.
Fleming hailed the Super Kings' furious pursuit of what initially looked like a challenging target. He also conceded that the Super Kings are "nowhere near where they want to be" in IPL 2020, but said the return of Watson to form and Shardul Thakur's variations at the death buoyed the side.
"Again, that's where confidence comes up," he said. "If you can get a win, you're going to have players who have performed and done personally well. And we'd just lacked that. As a team we've been toiling away, but we haven't had any individual star power do anything of note apart from Faf. So, [it] would be nice to get a bit of individual success and team success for that."
Having cracked a winning formula, can the Super Kings now get on a roll like they've done several times in the past?