CHENNAI: It is 2021 and the pandemic has a changed lot of things around the world. But in the post-Covid-19 world, Chennai Super Kings have managed to retain their past, with MS Dhoni still being the face of the franchise. It has been more than a decade since he first donned the yellow kit and for the first time, you are beginning to hear whether he has remained way too long.
Chennai is an emotional city. It loves the varied faces. It has fallen for heroes, especially the boy-next-door type. It never gets tired of celebrating them. It likes reminiscing about the past, which the Super Kings have given plenty of. They were the most successful IPL franchise. For 11 seasons they were the only team to make the play-offs every season. But all of it is in the past. It is only nostalgia that is left now.
After the setback of the last edition, where they finished seventh, barely recognisable, it's an understatement to say that this season is an important one. The Super Kings' faithful have been waiting for a happy ending. It's the image of their 'Thala' lifting the title for the fourth time before bidding adieu. They still back him to bring back the cup and narrow the gap with leaders Mumbai Indians. But there are doubts whether the Colonel has the troops to achieve this.
In Dhoni's own words, Chennai had too many holes last season. However hard they tried, they couldn't hide any of those. Had a full-fledged auction been there, Chennai would have had the chance to rebuild the squad completely. But, in the absence of one, they have added new faces in Moeen Ali, Robin Uthappa, K Gowtham and Jason Behrendorff to their ranks. They no doubt fill the holes, but it is their core group that still remains a cause of concern.
Dhoni, Suresh Raina, Dwayne Bravo have experience behind them. But how effective will they be is the question on everyone's mind. Since the last IPL, Dhoni hasn't played any competitive cricket and Ambati Rayudu, their other premier batsman, has played only five matches with only 50-plus score. Ditto with Raina. Bravo has games behind his belt, but at 40, whether he has the fitness to last the entire edition remains to be seen.
For all the talk of Chennai striking an emotional chord with the locals, that it has spilled inside is hard to miss. They are a franchise that lay emphasis on loyalty and connect, but it can be their undoing on a competitive field. In Ruturaj Gaikwad, Moeen, Sam Curran, Mitchell Santner, Gowtham, Shardul Thakur and Deepak Chahar, they have the personnel who can help them to the play-offs, but the question is whether the Super Kings will play them ahead of those who have made an emotional connection.
In many ways it is Dhoni's team. Win or lose, the buck stops with him. In a tournament where teams look for a cutting edge and new ideas, after a disappointing season, Chennai have chosen to retain faith in their tried and tested personnel. Even the support staff led by head coach Stephen Fleming – the longest-serving coach in the IPL – is at the helm, looking to script another comeback.
For a team that is known to make 'comeback' their synonym, the challenge that lies ahead of them seems beyond theirs. Unless they stop being themselves.