CSK prove instincts still alive in the age of analysis

They adjusted on the fly having built a team for certain conditions and then getting only one match in Chennai, but CSK rode the wave to finish as IPL champions

Sidharth Monga
Sidharth Monga
The most enduring connection between practitioners of top-level sport and the outside world has been that of secrecy. Our quest for the inside knowledge is endless. We want to know how they do what they do, we want to experience what they experience and why they make the decisions they make. We want to be in their shoes.
Sportspeople, though, don't want us to know any of that. Being secretive is an almost formalised part of sport. They guard their secrets fiercely. They talk with hands covering their mouths. They speak cliches about the right areas. They want stump mics turned down. It drives us mad.
Let Jerry Seinfeld explain. Women and men know what men want. Women. But men don't know what women want. "How do we get women?" Seinfeld says in one of his routines. "Oh, we don't know that. The next step after that we have no idea. This is why you see men honking car horns, yelling from construction sites. These are the best ideas we've had so far."
We read all those banal biographies for insights, watch re-runs, listen to interviews. The books are just an extension of scorecards, interviews guarded. We want to know. We don't know how to go about it because the teams and the players don't want us to know. We have just been honking car horns and yelling from construction sites.
Until T20 and data analysis came around, that is. This format was a blank slate for starters. Data was our in, our window into their world. Teams were actually putting people who were one of us in their dugouts. People who didn't play cricket professionally but could work with numbers, have the memory to remember how a certain bowler got a batsman out in that obscure league three months ago and then work out numbers to back that observation, who could tell you what the go-to shot for a batsman is once you put him under pressure.
So quickly we learnt so much about this game through data analysis. Why a certain bowler bowled a certain over. Why the sweeper cover moved to point after a certain batsman had faced three dots in a row. The game was changing at a rapid pace, faster arguably than it ever had, and we ran wild with our theories. When will players stop thinking about personal milestones, when will slow batsmen start to rule themselves out so a bigger hitter can use the limited deliveries available, when will John Buchanan's dream of using live analytics to influence live games materialise, when will teams introduce internal fielding metrics.
Last year, ESPNcricinfo sat Stephen Fleming down for a long chat on all things T20. This was an interaction between a modern coach with modern methods and an interviewer who was provided a rare in. Fleming listened patiently, spoke about all the changes, especially in the training methods, but there was something essentially old-fashioned about him. He appreciated all external inputs, including his own, but knew at the end of the day the job has to be carried out by those human beings in an uncontrolled environment. That you can equip and empower them with all the knowledge, expertise and analysis, but on the field, under the pressure, the game has to be run by the players themselves.
Fleming also happens to be the No. 1 man for three-time IPL champion, seven-time finalist and winner of the first World T20 - MS Dhoni. His feel and instinct for the limited-overs game is unparalleled. Chennai Super Kings' latest triumph was reinforcement that T20 is still a sport played out in the middle, by humans who react differently to pressure. That when all is said and done, a human being has to rock up and bowl a final over to him or Dwayne Bravo. That at these times it is not enough to know that the wide yorker is the ball to bowl to Dhoni; you have to actually execute it. That when you respect and play out one or two bowlers, you are at the same time letting the others - inexperienced Indian bowlers in the case of the IPL - know that you are coming after them, which brings pressure on them.
The whole campaign of Super Kings was in effect a reminder that while analysis is instructive, it is not set in stone. That the numbers we have for analysis come from what these players do, and not the other way around. Dhoni left alone 25 balls in this IPL, way more than any other batsman. In a format that starting quickly is fast becoming the holy grail, especially for those who bat in the second half of the innings, Dhoni had the fourth-worst strike rate in the first five balls and ninth-worst over the first 10 balls this season. Yet he was just outside the top 10 smart strike rates for the season.
In a chase of over 200 against Kolkata Knight Riders, Dhoni ends up with 25 off 28, slowest innings of 15 balls or more. Super Kings win. In a chase of 198 against Kings XI Punjab, he is 23 off 22. Super Kings come within a blow of winning with Dhoni unbeaten on 79 off 44. In the high-pressure qualifier against Sunrisers Hyderabad, he takes nine balls to get off the mark, scores 9 off 18, and tells his partner Faf du Plessis, who is himself going at a strike rate of 50, to just play out Rashid Khan. Du Plessis wins them the match with time to spare. In the final, against the same opponents, Shane Watson takes 11 balls to score his first run before scoring a match-winning century. These are the times when cameras pan to the dugout for anxious faces. Not with Super Kings because they don't have anxious faces; they have taken after their captain.
More than analysis, what is important for Dhoni is to realise in that moment what the opposition is trying to achieve and look to deny them. If Bhuvneshwar Kumar is bowling an extra over at the top, Dhoni wants his side to show knowledge that the opposition is desperate for a wicket. If you feel the scoreboard pressure and try a silly shot in this extra over of Bhuvneshwar, that annoys Dhoni more than any slow strike rate. Ride the storm, minimise the damage when things are not going for you, take the game deep, make the opposition close it out. And when your time comes - and it does come - take full toll.
Fleming and Dhoni concur. "If you are finding it tough, chances are others will too." Stick it out. ESPNcricinfo asked Fleming how far the game was from batsmen ruling themselves out when nothing is coming off and they are wasting important deliveries. "That's part of the battle, isn't it?" Fleming said. That constant struggle. Don't give up the ghost. There is a romantic in both Dhoni and Fleming.
All through the season Super Kings confounded. Middle-order batsman Ambati Rayudu became opener. Opener Sam Billings batted in the middle. Ravindra Jadeja kept batting ahead of Bravo, often resulting in opposition not using up their spinners. They even performed the rare act of winning a completed T20 despite scoring fewer runs in boundaries than the opposition. They adjusted on the fly, having built a team for certain conditions and then getting only one match in those conditions.
Super Kings' campaign was also practical. They knew of their weaknesses. Dhoni asked for certain levels of fitness but didn't want players like Watson to bust a hamstring trying a quick single or stopping one. There were games when all Jadeja did was bat ahead of Bravo just to disrupt the opposition's use of spinners. The format is so short, teams can often carry a surplus player, which they use tactically to either give a misfiring matchwinner some rope or to use a super-specialist for a match-up with an opposition matchwinner. Dhoni, it seems, does so just to take the piss.
Take the piss he did when at the trophy presentation he spoke of important numbers in their final: 27th, the date; 7th, Super Kings' final; 7, his jersey number. As users of social media might say, he was trolling us for having questioned him. It doesn't dismiss analysis entirely - Mumbai Indians are a side that use it a lot and have won three titles themselves - but it creates a conflict between philosophies that co-exist, which is half the fun.
Yet there is a certain joy in being proved wrong by Dhoni, being trolled by him. It makes sport human. As analysts sitting outside, you want to be able to explain everything, to even call events before they happen, as ESPNcricinfo's Live Report did in the other two playoffs, correctly raising question marks over Ajinkya Rahane's effectiveness outside the Powerplay overs and Andre Russell's chasing prowess based on their past record. There is a thrill to be able to do so, to know something, to be proven right. At least we are not just honking car horns and yelling from construction sites by dissecting body language in retrospect or questioning the passion and commitment of the players.
Then again there is joy to be told by Dhoni there is only so much we know. That there are things in sport we can't explain, they just happen in that moment. As Naz Khialvi told God in his song immortalised by Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan's voice, Tum Ik Gorakh Dhandha Ho, "Jo Samajh Mein Aa Gaya Phir Woh Khuda Kyun Kar Hua". How is it God if it can be explained?

Sidharth Monga is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo