There's a line that does the rounds on social media every time the IPL playoffs come around, about how it is a tournament where seven teams compete to decide who faces Chennai Super Kings in the final. It's not far from the truth: CSK have made seven finals out of nine, and made it to the last four every single season. It's an incredible record in any league. Most tellingly, they've done so with a formula not so commonly seen in T20 cricket: continuity. Their captain and vice-captain are the same two that took the field for their first ever IPL game, 12 years ago. Their head coach, batting coach and bowling coach were all part of the squad that made the final in the first season, and as many as four current players go as far back as at least 2012.
T20 cricket is barely recognisable from that time: it's now analysis-heavy, with coaching staff and think tanks poring over match-ups and customising tactics for individuals, and bowlers coming up with variations to cover almost every scenario. And yet, in 2019, Super Kings "don't plan, don't have team meetings", in the words of allrounder Dwayne Bravo, and go by what "the best captain in the world" says, adapting on the go.
While MS Dhoni has refused to let the world in on the secret of how they have made the playoffs every single season "until I retire from cricket", his exemplary cricketing smarts - which so often defy common perception and data - are the biggest reasons for their reputation as the tournament's most consistent side.
A look at five tenets of conventional T20 cricket wisdom that CSK regularly upend.
Younger/faster sides are best-suited for T20? Not quite
"Our age is [out] there, you can Google it. But you just can't beat experience in any sport", Bravo said recently. The Super Kings team that won the IPL 2018 final had an average age of just over 31, the first team the other side of 30 to win the tournament.
T20 remains a game of slim margins, where a single ball, one bit of fielding, can make the difference. Dhoni's side have worked around this, accepting that they will never be the fastest movers, by holding on to their chances in the field, while also shattering the belief that youth and fitness need not be used interchangeably. The likes of Faf du Plessis and Bravo are in their mid-30s, but remain some of the fastest movers and catchers on the field.
Dhoni's (and coach Stephen Fleming's) belief in experience is only too well known: they have had a history of assembling squads full of former international captains, starting with Fleming himself, through du Plessis and Bravo to Brendon McCullum in recent times. Their three IPL-winning sides (2010, 2011 and 2018) feature among the tournament's five oldest. "Chennai Senior Kings" and "Dad's Army" aren't barbs, just backhanded compliments.
Are IPL seasons too short to give players a long rope? Ask Watto
Shane Watson averaged 14.7 from his first ten innings in IPL 2019, only to win Man of the Match in his 11th game. "Most other sides I've played in, I'd have been dropped a few games ago," he said in the post-match conference.
He's right, and you don't need to look beyond his two previous teams - Rajasthan Royals and Royal Challengers Bangalore - in recent times for proof. Teams, particularly those lower down the points table, are chopped and changed often, since there are only 14 games in which to push for a playoff spot. Not at Super Kings, though - especially not if you are a proven international like Watson. And the return on investment shows.
Over 11 seasons, CSK have used just 74 players, by far the lowest in the tournament, even accounting for the team's two-season absence in 2016 and 2017. As many as 33 of those 74 players have won a Man-of-the-Match award, an outstanding ratio of 45%. Delhi Capitals (formerly Daredevils) are the next best, at 37%, for a different reason: it's a squad that has undergone massive churn over the years.
Who says spinners are defensive options meant to bowl the middle overs?
Back in the early days of the IPL, spinners were used largely through the middle overs as defensive options, and rarely in the Powerplay (Yusuf Pathan at Rajasthan Royals was a notable exception). Super Kings' spinners bowled 12.4 balls every Powerplay through the first three seasons of the tournament, the most among all teams, thanks to R Ashwin and Muttiah Muralitharan's overs up top. Ashwin remains the most economical Powerplay spinner in IPL history after Sunil Narine, thanks largely to his time at Super Kings.
Likewise, at the death (overs 17-20), where the use of spinners is less common, even today (Kolkata Knight Riders of recent years being the exception), Super Kings bowled roughly nine balls of spin every innings between 2008 and 2010, even using a part-timer like Suresh Raina regularly, along with Ashwin and Muralitharan. So much so that on the all-time list for most balls of spin bowled at the death in domestic T20 cricket, the Super Kings bowling attack of 2009 is the only one from the 2000s to feature in the top five.
After a 2018 season when they had to play their "home" matches in Pune instead of at spin-friendly Chepauk, they are back near the top of the charts in both phases - their spinners have picked up eight wickets in the Powerplay (most successful) and six wickets at 6.00 at the death (most economical).
Among the reasons for CSK's success with spin - and it is commentary-box perception, even when India play, that spinners tend to do better with Dhoni behind the stumps - is that their use of it isn't formulaic. A look at the records of Ravindra Jadeja and Raina during their time away from Super Kings bears that out. Raina, for instance, being an offspinner, stuck to mostly bowling to left-handers (118 balls to left-handers, 14 to right-handers) as captain of Gujarat Lions in 2016 and 2017, and managed just one wicket over the two seasons at an average of 184, going at 8.36 runs an over.
Dhoni recently admitted at a toss interview with Ian Bishop that CSK "don't pay a lot of attention to analytics", beyond "getting an idea about the batsman or bowler". They look at "the strengths of the individual" instead and plan accordingly.
As an opener, Narine has demolished spinners in Powerplays on his way to making two of the tournament's fastest fifties. He strikes at 245 against spin, and doesn't get out to it too often. Despite that, Dhoni has repeatedly unleashed Harbhajan Singh - and lately, Mitchell Santner - on him. Narine averages 0.66 against Super Kings' spinners in the first six overs.
And then there are games when Dhoni picks a specialist bowler in the XI, and doesn't bowl him at all, depending on the match situation. The odds go up if you're a spinner - Ashwin, Harbhajan, Karn Sharma, and most often, Jadeja, have been through this. Most recently, Harbhajan was picked for Super Kings' IPL 2018 playoff against Sunrisers Hyderabad, only to not bowl a single ball.
Maxing out the Powerplay, making the most of the fielding restrictions, is received wisdom - but not for CSK
Dhoni said at a 2013 match presentation, after losing a rain-curtailed eight-over game that for Chennai Super Kings, the match usually begins after eight overs. The side's average Powerplay score over 11 seasons stands at 46 for 1, putting them in the bottom half on the all-time table for that metric. Only Royals and Sunrisers lose fewer wickets per Powerplay among current sides, and a large part of the reason for these numbers is the kind of players Super Kings have chosen as their openers over the years.
They have never been a side to go all out with dashers up top, choosing instead to build their innings and go big in the final overs (they have a run rate of 10.6 at the death, second only to Royal Challengers Bangalore). Michael Hussey, Super Kings' most prolific opener, with an astounding average of 41.13, had only opened twice in T20 cricket before his stint with them. Matthew Hayden's exit in 2010 paved the way for Hussey to open long-term, most often with M Vijay, and once even with Ashwin.
Hussey isn't the only one. Ambati Rayudu had faced just two balls as an opener over ten seasons of the IPL before his 602-run 2018 season, which vaulted him back into the national side. It is a slot now mostly occupied by Faf du Plessis, not a dasher or a regular opener himself. In the 2011 (Hussey) and 2018 (Rayudu) seasons, in both of which CSK won the title, they were among the two slowest-scoring sides in the Powerplay.
Except for a period when the explosive McCullum and Dwayne Smith joined hands, Super Kings have mostly used two innings-building "anchors", or at best one dasher in Hayden or Shane Watson. They were also among the earliest proponents of a fully flexible batting order, with the likes of S Badrinath (who played in all positions from No. 1 through 8), Raina (3-6), Albie Morkel (4-8) and Dhoni (3-7) shuffled around depending on match situations.
We'll leave it till the last over, thanks very much
Conventional wisdom says you go all out in the 19th over, rather than leaving yourself too much to do in the 20th. But no side has won more games in the final over than Super Kings (28), including six times off the last ball. In more than half of these matches (15), they have chased down more than ten runs in the last over. Mumbai Indians are the only other thrill-seekers who come anywhere close. It's nothing less than you'd expect of a side led by Dhoni, and the results validate the approach: Super Kings win 57% of the games they take to the final over, comfortably the highest in the field.
Among the reasons they have been able to sustain the approach of taking it deep, ignoring the net run rate, is because of the cushion provided by the many points they rack up in the early stages of a season, especially at home, where they have won 73% of their 52 games. For CSK, it has hardly ever come down to net run rate deciding their playoff berth (except for a dramatic 2012 season, when multiple results involving other teams went their way after they finished playing their 16 games).
As Rahul Dravid said recently, the use of data can't explain everything. "I think a guy like Dhoni gets the feel of the game better than most captains."
How much of this will change after Dhoni hangs up his boots is anyone's guess. In the small sample of five games he has missed, Super Kings have lost four, including one in a Super Over.
Most of the aspects above are in sync with his core beliefs: immense trust in a fixed set of players, who seem to raise their game while playing under him; faith in multi-skilled cricketers (three of their top four all-time wicket-takers are allrounders); continuity; taking things deep; not paying too much attention to deep stats and data and, most of all, backing his instinct.
With inputs from Gaurav Sundararaman. All data accurate as of May 1