PUNE: Chennai Super Kings sat on the auction table, a programme running on artificial intelligence kept throwing up one name for an opener’s slot — Shane Watson. It wasn’t a surprise, as in the leadup to the auction, captain MS Dhoni’s plan was simple. Because they had retained the core of the yesteryear in the form of Dhoni, Suresh Raina, Ravindra Jadeja and Dwayne Bravo, what CSK sought was proven customers for each spot. That they ended up with one of the oldest squads in terms of age (29 being the average) is a different story.
But in the four matches they have played so far, it is these old legs with the exception of Sam Billings which have produced some standout performances for Chennai. Back to Watson. While they were preparing for the auction, Chennai flirted with the idea of going for explosive openers, who could get the team off to fiery starts.
They also analysed how their teams of the past had gone about it. They have traditionally had one conventional opener and one aggressor — not necessarily an explosive one — as that is what their captain wants. Stability mixed with good start over pure slam-bang. That’s not how most T20 teams operate. But Chennai have been different.
There is a reason why they have the second most wins in the history of the competition. They had Matthew Hayden and Stephen Fleming, then Hayden and Murali Vijay, then Mike Hussey and Vijay — pairs who fit this bill. The only exceptions were Brendon McCullum and Dwayne Smith — two of the most out and out explosive openers. Even then, CSK didn’t really ask them to go hammer and tongs. While Dhoni’s and head coach Fleming’s preference for multiskilled players also played a huge role in them going for Watson, they were also influenced by the all-rounder’s performance in Big Bash, where he was among the top five run-getters.
His 331 runs in 10 innings came at a strike rate of 139. In Watson, Chennai were able to fill two holes — opener and allrounder — which meant Chennai had multiple options to choose from for other spots. And in the four matches he has played, Watson has provided the team what he was asked for.
No doubt his bowling has not lived up to his past reputation, but the batsman in him has still a season or two left in global T20 leagues. In between Big Bash and IPL, he had a stellar stint with Quetta Gladiators in Pakistan Super League, where he had almost similar numbers like he had with Sydney Thunder. At Chennai, he has settled into their traditional opener’s role rather than his own, and has given them stability and a platform for the middle-order.
On Friday against Rajasthan Royals, Watson was greeted with freebies by Stuart Binny, which allowed to find his range early. Thereon, he carried the team on his big shoulders, which opened up whenever something was pitched within his reach. He didn’t throw away his start, knowing that if stayed longer on a fairly small ground, he would be able to clear boundaries at will. He did it six times and hit nine boundaries as Chennai registered a third win in four matches. Watson’s 57- ball 106 gave him the distinction of becoming the first player to score centuries for and against the same team.
CSK 204/5 in 20 overs (Watson 106, Raina 46; Gopal 3/20, Laughlin 2/38) beat RR 140 in 18.3 overs (Stokes 45; Bravo 2/16, Chahar 2/30)