Sidharth Monga is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo
Close your eyes. Imagine a Chennai Super Kings chase. Things are going well, but the pitch is likely to slow down. In the first innings, too, the quick scoring happened when the ball was new. Now, on this slowing pitch, the opposition legspinner gets one opener's wicket. And then the second opener falls trying to attack the opposition offspinner, who is originally brought on as a match-up against the No. 3 power-hitter, a left-hand batter.
Now, tell me how the rest of the Super Kings chase goes with a possible 12 overs from spinners on this track? Yes, you got it right. They take the game deep, the asking rate gets out of hand at one point, and then they rely on MS Dhoni, Dwayne Bravo or Ravindra Jadeja to win a tight match in the last over.
Well, those chases are a thing of the past.
Here, the No. 4 Ambati Rayudu walks in, and, one ball after Faf du Plessis got out trying to hit a boundary off Glenn Maxwell, attempts another boundary. The right-left combination is kept in place throughout once the opening wicket falls. The batters pick their match-ups, and go after the bowlers. Moeen Ali hits the legspinner for two sixes in two overs. Rayudu takes the offspinner down again. They both get out trying to hit a boundary, and by the time they are out, the asking rate has come down from eight to under six.
When Moeen gets out, Suresh Raina comes in; when Rayudu gets out, Dhoni comes in. The right-left combination is retained, and neither of the new batters slows the innings down. Super Kings win with 11 balls to spare, an uncharacteristic chase for them.
That Super Kings needed to fix this part of their game was the obvious thing to know. They just needed quicker runs through the middle overs to keep the opposition bowlers under pressure. They did it in the most practical way, the way Super Kings do things.
It wasn't as simple as asking the batters to go out and hit out. That's too risky an approach for any team led by Dhoni. They went and built extraordinary batting depth in their line-up so that the risk factor behind such an approach is reduced. It has freed up the batters, which usually results in better execution.
If you break their batting turnaround from 2020 into overs phases, Super Kings haven't changed much in the powerplay. Their strike rate has gone up from 7.13 per over to 7.37. In the middle overs, though, they have jumped 7.37 to 9.02 an over. They have never had such a quick season in the middle overs. As it follows, since their comeback into the IPL, Super Kings have never averaged as low as the 33.7 that they have done this IPL. They are putting less price on the wicket, which is what we want them to do, but they are able to do so because they have the insurance of a deep line-up.
Only Rajasthan Royals this season have scored quicker than Super Kings in the middle overs, but their higher rates in the powerplay and the middle overs have come at the cost of important wickets, which leaves them short of fuel at the death. That's why no team comes close to their 13.63 an over at the death.
This latest win, which puts Super Kings back on top of the table, was built on a bowling fightback of 66 got 6 in the last 10 overs, but the story of their comeback has been their batting. After successive matches, their coaches have spoken about this change.
"It is not by accident" coach Stephen Fleming said of the difficult choice of batting order when you have Barvo coming in at No. 8. "We sort of designed it that way so that we can keep a faster tempo. One of our internal criticisms or expectations was that we want to play the game faster. In the first half of the IPL in the UAE [last year], we were not able to do that for a number of reason. And we have rectified that. So it is good to have the depth and quality of batsmanship right down to eight-slash-nine."
"What went wrong here in the last IPL was a tremendous lesson," bowling coach Eric Simmons said. "But you have to learn the lesson. And we did. Our balance is really good. The batting line-up, the way we come out and play with the aggression that we do. We have put together a well-balanced team. We have learnt the lesson. The biggest difference is the aggression in our batting. We have come out a lot more aggressive than we did last time."
It needed a change in attitude, Fleming said, and to bring about that change in attitude they realised they needed to get a deeper batting line-up. "It has taken a lot of work behind the scenes with our attitude to how we play the game," Fleming said. "And the players have responded very well. We are a lot more aggressive, we have good depth, and with good strike power with the ball as well."
Getting batting depth is one thing, but to use it well is another. Dhoni is the last person to waste resources. Everybody has a fixed role in that batting order, and each of them gets to do it again and again. There are two-three constants in that batting now. du Plessis and Ruturaj Gaikwad will look for a solid rather than flashy start and will also quickly assess the conditions and relay the information to those who follow. Moeen's elite intent will be made full use of by promoting him to No. 3. Then a right-left combination will be maintained with either Raina or Rayudu batting at No. 4. Dhoni and Jadeja will also often bat in a way to maintain the right-left combination.
Secure in their roles, all the batters have responded by reading the conditions, match situations and match-ups. They have done the hard work behind the scenes be it at the transfer window or in the nets. When Dhoni goes out now, he knows he has quite a few options for various conditions.
"They have worked really hard on their game," Dhoni said of his team. "They have understood their role and responsibility for their team. What is their role, what needs to be done. I feel how they have read the conditions. I feel they are reading the situations very well and adapting to the demands of the game. Hopefully they continue."
Nothing will please Dhoni more than watching a good plan come together.