Despite Chennai Super Kings suffering an early exit and being on the brink of finishing at the bottom in IPL 2022, their captain MS Dhoni drew confidence from the performances of youngsters who are finding their feet in the set-up.
After Super Kings fell out of the race for the playoffs, they tinkered with their line-up in the last two games, roping in 19-year-old Sri Lankan quick Matheesha Pathirana, whose slingy action resembles that of Lasith Malinga, and uncapped Indians Prashant Solanki and N Jagadeesan.
After returning 2 for 24 against Gujarat Titans on his IPL debut, Pathirana fronted up to bowl the middle and death overs against Rajasthan Royals. He went wicketless but Dhoni sees him and left-arm seamer Mukesh Choudhary playing bigger roles for Super Kings in the future.
"I think whatever games that they've got, they've learnt a lot out of it," Dhoni, speaking to Star Sports at the post-match presentation, said of the youngsters. "One of the biggest examples is Mukesh, he has played all  games, but what is impressive is to see how he has improved from the first game to the last game and how he can bowl at the death. Still, he will go back and learn out of the outings that he has got and that's what we really want from players.
"Once they've got that experience, what is important is next year once they turn up for the IPL, they shouldn't start from scratch again. So, it is important to remember in their mind what has really happened in the IPL, what strengths they develop and thinking under pressure. I feel that's what is needed from youngsters. Most of them have made the most of whatever chances they have got."
Pathirana, in particular, had been on Super Kings' radar for a while. Ahead of IPL 2021, both Pathirana and fellow Sri Lankan Maheesh Theekshana were invited by Super Kings to bowl at their nets. However, it is understood that Sri Lanka Cricket didn't release them then as the IPL gig clashed with their domestic tournament and a Bangladesh tour. Once Adam Milne was sidelined from IPL 2022, Pathirana was called into the main squad, joining hands with Theekshana, who was picked at the auction for INR 70 lakh (approx. USD 93,000).
"Malinga! Our Malinga is really good," Dhoni said. "It's difficult to pick him and I feel he will definitely contribute next [year] for us in a big way.
"I think we have done well in patches and what is important is to keep doing well as a team. One of the ways is one of the individuals keeps doing well in every game and others contribute, but I feel the crucial thing whenever you get an opportunity, once you're in, make sure you make the most out of it, whether you're a batter or a bowler. Keep learning because it's not a one-year tournament - you keep coming back year after year. Once you keep learning and once you've matured, that's when you want to capitalise and be a big IPL player for the next ten years or 12 years. That's what is really needed from the youngsters."
Super Kings' head coach Stephen Fleming also delivered a glowing appraisal of Choudhary, who is currently the joint-highest wicket-taker in the powerplay this season, with 11 strikes. Delhi seamer Simarjeet Singh also bowled some eye-catching spells with the new ball in the injury-enforced absence of Deepak Chahar.
"He [Choudhary] was excellent," Fleming said at the post-match press conference. "He had a nervous start, but we stuck with him and reaped the rewards towards the end. He just got better and better. Simarjeet as well. Halfway through he only had a handful of games and he has responded [well] to the pressure also. So those two boys were definitely a positive."
Fleming conceded that veering away from Super Kings' original template, that values experience, and blooding youngsters has been a challenge for the team management.
"It's a balance, isn't it? It certainly didn't go our way, but the reality of it is when you start a new cycle and when you have a number of new players and a new dynamic in the team, it can be testing. We suffered from catastrophic success, so just trying to play the same way and continue on from our last four years, which was very successful, is a real challenge. So, dropping back and understanding what new players can do takes a little bit of time."
Fleming rued the mishmash of an effort from the senior players this season, but said it would drive them to step up next season.
"What we didn't have is a couple of form players that got us through the early days. You get a couple of wins and a little bit of evidence that the team is on the right track, and then young players get confidence from the senior players doing well. So, that's the cycle. We had a slow start and we weren't able to string enough games together. We had opportunities - there's no doubt we had opportunities - to do better than what we did, but the reality is we weren't good enough to make the semi-finals [playoffs] this year. And that's always a catalyst for next year."