IPL 2023: For MS Dhoni and CSK, a sweet homecoming

Synopsis: The Chepauk faithful had waited 1,426 days to see their favourite ‘Thala’, MS Dhoni, and their team in action. When the day arrived, Chennai Super Kings delivered them a super hit evening, defeating Lucknow Super Giants by 12 runs.

First day, first show

The MA Chidambaram Stadium has undergone a massive revamp and there is plenty of gloss to it, but for a team that sets foot on it to take on the Super Kings, it hasn’t changed much. The so-called ‘knowledgeable crowd’, which usually appreciates a good battle and never shies away from even applauding opposition players, has made the venue an intimidating one for visiting teams. The unconditional love at their fortress ‘Anbuden’ – where they had won 40 of the 56 matches they have played and enjoy a win percentage of 71.4% is a testament to it — is just reserved for the Men in Yellow.

Lucknow Super Giants felt it right through Monday evening. When Ruturaj Gaikwad and Devon Conway got them off to a supersonic start, the whistles refused to die down. When Shivam Dube and Moeen Ali stalled in the middle-overs, they began chanting the former’s name as he responded with three sixes that swung momentum Chennai’s way again. As Lucknow kept chipping away with wickets, they chanted “we want Dhoni” before giving collective sigh. When Dhoni finally arrived in the last over, they cleared their throat for the good. Or so you thought. But as he smashed a six off Mark Wood’s 149 kmph – reminiscent of the one off Nuwan Kulasekhara at the Wankhede on April 2, 2011 – it reached a crescendo. Surely, it can’t get louder than this? A ball later, you had the answer as Wood sent in a bouncer – a delivery that has troubled a lot of batters around the world — wide of off stump, and the 41-year-old Dhoni, deposited way into the stands with a pull. Off the next, Dhoni perished, but the 35,000 fans had got what they had paid for.

In top gear

They have been waiting for this moment forever, to see their team in flesh and when the day arrived, the Super Kings didn’t disappoint them. Gaikwad carried on from where he finished at Ahmedabad, and Conway matched him shot for shot, as Chennai scored 79 in the powerplay without losing a wicket – their highest at the venue – as Lucknow Super Giants looked shell shock. And so did the 35,000-odd fans who had turned up as this was out of Super Kings’ template at home. At home, they usually stick to a set formula of scoring in the 165-180 range and choke opponents with spinners.

In the last three years that they have played, especially since 2021, they have gone about changing their approach, being a lot more expressive with the bat, thanks to the depth they have in batting. Still, none saw it coming here at Chepauk. Barring Ravi Bishnoi – he too had one expensive over against Shivam Dube – the rest of Lucknow’s bowling unit was at the receiving end of Chennai’s onslaught. And none bore it more than Krunal Pandya and K Gowtham, who conceded 41 runs in three overs between them. Even Wood, who had destroyed Delhi Capitals with his sheer pace two days back, was not sparred as Chennai’s batters used his pace to their advantage as the openers put on 110 runs in 9 overs.

From there on, even though Chennai kept losing wickets, Dube, Moeen, Ambati Rayudu and Dhoni played cameos that took them to 217/7.

Spinners to the rescue

On a flat deck, and having looked totally out of depth while defending 178 at Ahmedabad, despite having 217 to defend, it was a test of character for Chennai’s attack. And when Kyle Mayers began the chase with a typically characteristic whirlwind inning, the total seemed not well within Lucknow’s reach as 50 came in 3.4 overs. By the time Mayers – 53 off 22b (8×4, 2×6) – departed in the sixth over, Lucknow already had 79 on board.

And Dhoni looked every bit exasperated. At Ahmedabad, even the spinners had failed to rescue him, but that was not going to be the case at Chepauk. If Lucknow spinners – except Bishnoi – were too quick on the pitch, Chennai’s Moeen Ali and Mitchell Santner bowled a lot slower in the air. Having compiled 80 runs in the powerplay, off the next six overs Lucknow could only manage 30 off the next five overs, losing Deepak Hooda, KL Rahul and Krunal Pandya. Moeen, especially, was the stand-out of the lot, as he not only gave enough air but also made the ball grip and turn, forcing the batsmen to pick bigger boundaries to clear and leaving it to the fielders to do the rest.

That phase brought Chennai back into the game. Even though Lucknow were in the game till Nicholas Pooran (32 runs of 18b) was around, their pacers held their nerves — there was plenty of work to do for Chennai in the pace department – to seal a 12-run victory.

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