x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Shades of Barcelona in Chennai's IPL triumph

Continuity and unwavering belief in each player's ability has been the hallmark of the Super Kings and their football counterparts crowning achievement.

Chennai’s best move to retaining the title took place at pre-season auction when they chose to keep many of last year’s team.
Chennai’s best move to retaining the title took place at pre-season auction when they chose to keep many of last year’s team.

Continuity and unwavering belief in each player's ability the hallmark of both side's crowning achievement.

As the Indian Premier League season came to a close on Saturday, one of the tournament's chief architects, the former commissioner, but now outlaw, Lalit Modi, was at the other big game of the night.

"Atmosphere absolutely electric at the Wembley stadium. No comparison to the earlier game today," Modi tweeted from the Champions League final between Barcelona and Manchester United in north London.

Comparisons are odious, but nothing can keep Modi from tweeting, not even the troubles that have led him to refuse to return from England to answer charges of irregularities in the IPL.

Leaving the judgements on atmosphere aside, there was an undeniable similarity in the plays on those two distant pitches.

Like Barcelona later in the night, Chennai Super Kings ruthlessly dominated their game and outclassed their opponents.

Had Ravichandran Ashwin known of Manchester United's fate at Wembley, he would have probably rephrased his post-match quotes, the one about being the "Man United of IPL". After two consecutive titles, Chennai are emerging as the Barcelona of the lucrative Twenty20 league.

They might not be as dominant as the Catalans, having lost five of their 14 games during the league stages. But when it comes to the big games, they turn indomitable, gaining strength from the belief in each other and finding inspiration from a captain who trusts them wholeheartedly.

MS Dhoni has often been described as a Destiny's Child, but it is not mere fortune that has seen "Captain Cool" win the World Twenty20 (2007) and the 50-over World Cup for his country, or the Champions League T20 and back-to-back IPL titles for his franchise.

It is the trust he shows in his players and it was obvious at the auctions earlier in the year. Chennai retained four of their players - Dhoni, Murali Vijay, Suresh Raina and Albie Morkel - and bought back most of the others from previous seasons.

That continuity was maintained throughout the tournament with Chennai fielding an unchanged squad for the last six games, the longest such streak in the IPL's four-year history. Through their 16 matches this year, Super Kings used just 17 players. Only the Mumbai Indians matched that figure as teams such as Pune and Delhi used 25 and 22 players, respectively, and finished at the bottom of the league table.

"Chennai have been the only team that really targeted getting the players that they had back," Adam Gilchrist, the Kings XI Punjab captain, said before the start of the tournament. "That could prove to be a very shrewd move on their behalf."

It did indeed. While the rest of the teams struggled to find their best combinations, Chennai knew what to expect from every player and had a man for every occasion.

They were not dependent on individual brilliance such as the Royal Challengers Bangalore with Chris Gayle, Mumbai Indians with Lasith Malinga and Sachin Tendulkar, or the Delhi Daredevils with Virender Sehwag.

Chennai's top run-getter was Michael Hussey, whose 492 was fifth best in the league.

But they had two more - Suresh Raina (438) and Murali Vijay (434) - in the top 10.

In fact, Chennai had five batsmen among the 14 in the league who scored 390 runs or more.

On the bowling front, R Ashwin (20) and Doug Bollinger (17) represented the Super Kings in the top six wicket-takers.

So, as Dhoni pointed out, it was a consummate team effort, elevated through their collective intensity.

"What is important, being in the final, you don't want to get desperate to win it," Dhoni said after the triumph. "But what you want is to show intent … that you are there to win it.

"That's what we did."

The Royal Challengers lacked that intensity right through the game.

They had the league's top two on the batting list in Gayle and Virat Kohli, and the IPL's third-highest wicket-taker of the season in Sreenath Aravind, but in reality they were just a one-man team.

Before Gayle's arrival, Bangalore had just one win from five games.

They lost only three games after the Jamaican joined the team and Gayle had flopped in all of them.

Even in the final, the fat lady was clearing her throat as soon as he was dismissed for nought off the fourth ball of the innings.

The Chennai Super Kings knew the fate of the match had been sealed.

And the fans knew it and, unfortunately, the Royal Challengers knew it as well.

One can only surmise about Bangalore's fate had Dirk Nannes not been injured.

There would have been no 3am SOS to Gayle and the fans would have been denied one of the most cavalier batting performances of recent memory.

"Things happen sometime," Gayle said.

"You don't even realise how much they can change and impact on someone's life."

Paul Valthaty and Iqbal Abdulla were echoing those sentiments on Saturday night.

Valthaty emerged from obscurity to win the prize for the best individual performance of the tournament. Abdulla, who arrived in Mumbai with his family eight years ago from the small town of Azamgarh to pursue his cricketing dreams, grabbed the rising star award.

Their stories added to the atmosphere at Chepauk. At Wembley, Lionel Messi and Co dazzled the world, but it was nothing unexpected.