When Chennai Super Kings assembled at their den a month before the Indian Premier League, they had a couple of cracks to fill in the batting unit. With Robin Uthappa hanging up his boots, Ambati Rayudu cajoled back from retirement and few domestic batsmen, who fit into their scheme, available at the auction pool, the Super Kings were left with no option but to look at Shivam Dube and rely on Ajinkya Rahane.
Dube had already been part of the set-up last season, but the left-hander has limitations. Not the most effective batsman while fronting up pacers and his struggles against short-pitched bowling well documented, Dube had been used as a finisher at Royal Challengers Bangalore with little justification. Then there was Rahane, who after being discarded from the Indian Test team, was released into the auction pool by Kolkata Knight Riders. He was at a career crossroad. Mostly used at the top to play the anchor role around other aggressive batters, the only place where Chennai could slot him was in the middle-order. In terms of limitations it is hard to see a team in the IPL having two such batters in the eleven.
Yet, Chennai have been able to maximise their potential to such an extent that the duo has been their standout performers in the middle-order, providing them with impetus. In many ways, the pair is contrasting. Dube can struggle against pacers, but Rahane, on the other hand, feasts on pace. The left-hander can destroy spinners, but Rahane not quite so much.
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But the two complement each other and opponents are forced to resort to Plan B or C to neutralise their strength. So far, it hasn’t worked for the opposition as Chennai are once again reaping rewards for backing talents that other teams deemed not good enough to splurge the cash on. While Rahane was picked up at his base price of Rs 50 lakh, Dube cost Chennai Rs 4 crore, a player, Rajasthan Royals dropped out of bidding at Rs 65 lakh and Lucknow Super Giants were not prepared to pay beyond Rs 2 crore.
Thus, it is remarkable how Chennai has been able to extract the best out of them. It is a theme that has recurred. Under MS Dhoni and head coach Stephen Fleming they have shown faith in players supposedly past their sell-by date. Mike Hussey, Shane Watson, Rayudu, Dwayne Bravo, Imran Tahir, and Uthappa have all enjoyed considerable success with the franchise at the twilight of their careers. So it may not come as a surprise that Dube and Rahane are enjoying the same – not in their twilight – but at important junctures of their career.
There is plenty of evidence to suggest how far they have grown as players. Rahane, equipped with a compact technique like most Mumbai batsmen of the previous era, is cutting loose. At the nets, he is practising deft touches towards third-man, plays the scoops, constantly steps out to hit the ball routinely in the air – a trait that is seldom part of his batsmanship – and rarely defends the ball, preferring attacking shots all times. The night before Chennai’s game against Mumbai Indians last Saturday, he was seen batting with an open stance against spinners, as he repeatedly slog-swept over the mid-wicket. It was as if Rahane was unlearning what he had learnt so far.
Observing him closely has been Mike Hussey, the CSK’s batting coach, who is “over the moon” with the way Rahane has batted this season. “Such a quality, quality player,” Hussey said. “His stroke play all around the ground has been superb. The conversation is more about just being around, just freeing him up. I know in the past, he’s probably played that role of anchor, but we’ve tried to take that tag away from him and sort of say, ‘no, you’re not an anchor, we don’t need you to be an anchor, we want you to go out and just play freely, be clear, see the ball and hit the ball’. I think he’s enjoying that because there’s a bit more freedom to play the natural way,” Hussey said.
Privately, Hussey revealed that Rahane has been frustrated not to bat through the overs and hit the winning runs, but is being told how even knocks of 29-ball 70 and 27-ball 61 are also winning matches for Chennai.
If it is about expanding Rahane’s game, with Dube it is slightly different. Aware that he has to be introduced when spinners are bowling to maximise his strength, Chennai have used him as a floater even if it meant someone like Moeen Ali has to bat down the order, a role he has done for England. It has meant, opposition teams have had to bring on their pacers in the middle-overs instead of saving them for the death which Dhoni has cashed in. In the 11 matches he has played, Dube has hit 24 sixes as against just 11 boundaries.
In one of the practice games before the season where he was worked out by one of the pacers and lost his wicket, CSK let him carry on and let spinners bowl at him. After getting a hang, he was spotted smashing Moeen Ali for four successive sixes in an over, which undoubtedly boosted his confidence. In the nets, while he still faces fast bowlers, he often finishes the session by taking the spinners to the cleaners.
Fleming and Dhoni have been clear about his role. “In his mind, he’s just so clear about how he needs to go about playing in any situation. It’s a floating role. It sort of depends on the situation of the game, depends on who is bowling and things like that. But talking to him and working with him, obviously he just feels clear about how he needs to go about it,” Hussey said.
Dubey, who picked up an injury in his finger, in their game against Mumbai Indians on Saturday is recovering and his availability for Delhi Capitals game is not certain. But he and Rahane have emerged as inspired buys this season.