Hemant Brar is a sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo
From being the first team to be eliminated last season, Chennai Super Kings have turned around their fortunes in IPL 2021 by becoming the first to qualify for the playoffs. But according to head coach Stephen Fleming, the seeds of their success were sown last year itself.
"I think I mentioned at the time, we were really proud of the way we finished [in 2020]," Fleming said after Super Kings beat Sunrisers Hyderabad on Thursday. "We won the last four [three] games in a row and started to get a little bit of rhythm together. In the first half of the tournament, a number of things went wrong, and our form and confidence were really low. But the way we finished was really encouraging, and that actually gave us the first look at what we could be.
"When we were sitting down analysing it, we thought we were probably a couple of spots away from being quite competitive. In fact, even if that was a bad year, we were only possibly one good win away from making the semi-finals [playoffs]. So we took more confidence out of it than maybe what others did.
"We knew it was just a couple of positions that would make us a balanced side. And then it was just about creating a style of play that was going to suit us and then just absorbing it and playing it. Once we got the players - Moeen Ali was one in particular - and had our boys fit and ready to go, and Suresh [Raina] back, it was just creating an environment that was positive and making sure there was no doubt."
Super Kings picked Moeen for INR 7 crore (USD 959,000) at the auction in February. The main reason behind signing him was they wanted someone to inject impetus during the middle overs. Moeen has done that job with aplomb, scoring 217 runs at a strike rate of 149.65 in that phase. In fact, only Faf du Plessis (435) and Ruturaj Gaikwad (407) have scored more runs for Super Kings this season than Moeen's overall aggregate of 278.
Another thing that has fallen into place for Super Kings is Dwayne Bravo's death-bowling form. Last year, Bravo had gone for 9.12 runs an over at the death; this time he has given away only 7.22. Fleming said the competition with Sam Curran for the allrounder's spot in the playing XI helped Bravo rediscover his mojo.
"Sam was excellent for us in the first part," Fleming said. "And Dwayne Bravo has come back now, the champion that he is, so there's some really good competition around that allrounder's spot. That's ideally what you want, two very good players competing for a spot and getting the best out of each other. Maybe [there could be] even an opportunity where they both play together.
"We're really impressed with the way Bravo has responded to the challenge. He's back to his best; his bowling at the death has been outstanding, and it just means that the role definition of the bowling group is very clear."
If there's one concern for Super Kings, it's Raina's form. He had started the season with a 36-ball 54 against Delhi Capitals in Mumbai but since then has crossed 20 only once in nine innings. Fleming, though, backed him to come good in the upcoming games.
"We've got a pretty clear role for him," he said of Raina. "He has got an optimal time that we want him to bat, and we're afforded the luxury of having a player that can come in and be aggressive. So it's just getting the timing right with that and managing the batters around him.
"We value his experience and we think he's got a part to play through the middle, which is an area that we've identified we can make a strength. Suresh is an experienced player, who has earned a bit of leeway. I expect as the tournament goes on, his performances will improve."
So far, Super Kings have won their all four games in the UAE but are still not assured of a top-two finish, which will give them two shots at the final. Fleming hinted that while they may look to manage the workloads of certain players in the next couple of games, there won't be too many changes in the side.
"I'm not big on momentum, momentum can go just as quick as you have it," he said. "So we're not really talking about that. But what we probably have been afforded is the opportunity to just manage workloads a bit better. We've got a day and then we travel to Abu Dhabi, and then another day, another game.
"So we'll certainly talk about how we can manage our players, making sure that we manage the team that played today and also the opportunities for guys who are on the fringe. So we've afforded that luxury now, but we won't be too experimental."