CSK eye direct path to seventh IPL final

First, they were called ageing warriors. Then, they had their home advantage taken away. But they were not to be denied a place in the playoffs. Chennai Super Kings have now been here in each of the nine years of their existence. Now, they return to the Wankhede – the venue of their reintegration, to take a step closer to the IPL title that has eluded them since 2011.

MS Dhoni has accepted that they aren’t the most agile side. Given the age of their older players, he isn’t even sure they can last another two years. But he wants to make the most of the present. Sealing the final berth on Tuesday gives them two advantages: firstly, it gives them a four-day rest and the luxury of staying in Mumbai. Secondly, their record at Eden Gardens, where they could play hosts Kolkata Knight Riders if they get there, isn’t the most appealing.

Now, six losses in 10 games can be scoffed at for other sides, given how IPL dynamics of retention and squad building change over time. CSK, with their strong core, comprising Dhoni, Suresh Raina, Ravindra Jadeja, Faf du Plessis and Dwayne Bravo, have bucked that trend over the years. So it’s clear that taking the trip to Kolkata is a route they’d like to avoid.

Sunrisers Hyderabad, meanwhile, are like that Formula One outfit that have clearly outpaced all their competitors at pre-season testing (read auction), qualifying stage (read league phase), but have had engine troubles at the start of the formation lap. It isn’t necessarily threatening their chances of clinching the race yet, but one they can’t completely ignore either. They finished top of the table in the league stage, but are heading into the playoffs having lost their last three games.

They’ve been beaten by CSK on both occasions this season, and their bowling, visibly their stronger suit, has shown signs of wear and tear. Rashid Khan has gone wicketless in three of the last four matches, Siddarth Kaul, whose strong performances earned him an India call up for the England tour, has conceded 40-plus in three of the last four games, and Bhuvneshwar Kumar has looked a little rusty, following periods of rest to manage his workload.

That isn’t their main concern yet. Their middle order hasn’t been able to sustain starts provided by the top three that has accounted for 60.3% of their total runs, the most for a side this season. Manish Pandey has underachieved, Deepak Hooda has failed to lend depth. An injury to Yusuf has added to their woes. Can they overcome these shortcomings and press the reset button before the three lights go off?

Previous meetings

Ambati Rayudu clearly loves the franchise from his hometown Hyderabad. He’s handed Sunrisers a pounding both times the sides have played each other this season. In the most recent outing, on a spicy Pune surface, he walloped a century to shave off a 180-run target without fuss. In their first meeting in Hyderabad, he made a 37-ball 79 to set up a strong total, which was just about enough as Dwayne Bravo defended 19 off the final over. CSK won by four runs.

Strategy punt

Sam Billings has managed just 108 runs at 13.5 this season. Dhoni isn’t one for unnecessary rejigs, but experience of being in a playoff situation before merits continuing with Faf du Plessis. Given Watson will slot back in to open, du Plessis could be used as a floater. This could allow the in-form Rayudu to continue as the second opener, even though his strike rate of 92.3 and 121.7 against Sandeep Sharma and Bhuvneshwar Kumar respectively is significantly lesser than against the other Sunrisers bowlers.

Last week, lack of muscle in the lower order, especially in the absence of the injured Yusuf Pathan, cost Sunrisers a chase against Royal Challengers Bangalore. On Saturday, the decision to leave out Alex Hales and promote Shreevats Goswami to the top opened up a spot lower down for allrounder Carlos Brathwaite. He not only hands them an extra bowling option to an already balanced attack, but could also find the Wankhede’s square boundaries and the surface, where there’s bounce and zip, more suited to his batting. With Kane Williamson and Shikhar Dhawan accounting for 661 and 437 runs respectively, and Goswami offering hitting ability, they wouldn’t necessarily miss Alex Hales, the opener, who is yet to make a half-century in six outings this season.

Stats that matter

  • CSK are the only side to have beaten the others at least once this season.

  • In the playoffs, Raina has made eight 30-plus scores, seven of which have been converted into a half-century. His 636 runs in 19 matches are the most in the playoffs.

  • Lungi Ngidi has quickly established himself as a useful death bowler. He’s conceded at an economy of just seven in the six overs he’s bowled at this stage. The other CSK bowlers have gone at 11.40.

  • Harbhajan Singh is one short of 50 IPL wickets at the Wankhede Stadium. Only Lasith Malinga, his former Mumbai Indians team-mate, has more (58).

  • CSK’s top three have negated the Rashid Khan threat brilliantly. Rayudu (38 runs off 25 balls) and Watson (14 off 10 balls) have gone after him in the Powerplays. Suresh Raina has been out once, but Rashid’s 15 deliveries have fetched 27.

Likely XIs

Sunrisers Hyderabad: 1 Shikhar Dhawan, 2 Shreevats Goswami, 3 Kane Williamson (capt), 4 Manish Pandey, 5 Deepak Hooda, 6 Shakib Al Hasan, 7 Carlos Brathwaite/Alex Hales, 8 Bhuvneshwar Kumar, 9 Rashid Khan, 10 Sandeep Sharma, 11 Siddarth Kaul

Chennai Super Kings: 1 Ambati Rayudu, 2 Shane Watson, 3 Suresh Raina, 4 MS Dhoni (capt, wk), 5 Sam Billings/Faf du Plessis, 6 Dwayne Bravo, 7 Ravindra Jadeja, 8 Deepak Chahar, 9 Harbhajan Singh, 10 Shardul Thakur, 11 Lungi Ngidi

Fantasy pick

Shakib Al Hasan should be your first choice. He lends balance by offering four overs, can provide lower-order batting depth, and has shown consistency this season: 176 runs, mostly lower down the order, and 13 wickets. If you’re looking for a pure batsman, look no further than Rayudu, who has made 179 runs in the two innings he’s played against Sunrisers, without the worry of law of averages. His failure in the final league game against Kings XI Punjab is enough to reignite his hunger.

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