Among Indian Premier League's nine teams, Mahendra Singh Dhoni's Chennai Super Kings (CSK) remain sentimental favourite of the fans, primarily because of the man at the helm.
The 41-year-old Dhoni, with his bulging biceps and never diminishing flash reflexes, remains a top draw even though his batting prowess hasn't got requisite return.
Yet, having led the team to four titles and nine finals, his mere presence makes the opposition try to think out of the box. No one knows what to do with the tangibles as much as the man from Ranchi does and in what could be his last season as a professional cricketer, he might still have some aces up his sleeves.
With IPL returning to its familiar home and away format, CSK will get to play seven games at "Fortress Chepauk" this season. After failing to qualify for the playoffs last season, Dhoni, who took back the captaincy from an angry Ravindra Jadeja, would certainly like to go out on a high. If he plans to quit also, one can never be sure about 'Captain Marvel'.
In IPL, it will always be foolhardy to keep CSK out of contention and this edition will be no different. And with star England all-rounder Ben Stokes in their ranks, CSK will have an imposing look.
The presence of Ben Stokes will give CSK a different look as his power-hitting could change complexion of any game. Also, on slow Chepauk track, he can produce a magical over or two and at times hurry the batters with his effort deliveries.
Seven home games at Chepauk where a Ravindra Jadeja or a Moeen Ali could prove to be very effective on tacky tracks where run-scoring could be difficult.
Devon Conway and Ruturaj Gaikwad look one of the most settled pairs among all teams. Ambati Rayudu, Stokes, Dhoni and Jadeja will form a solid batting core and for low-scoring games, they have Ajinkya Rahane, who could be used as an 'Impact Player'.
Mukesh Chaudhary being ruled out of the tournament due to injury is a big setback for CSK after his fine performance last season. Deepak Chahar, who has also had recurring back and hamstring issue, remains untested in match conditions, having missed the entire domestic season.
Chahar's last injury was a grade 3 quadriceps tear and it is difficult to know how well his rehabilitation has been unless he is tested in match situation. He will also be a contender for ODI World Cup but Chahar, at this point, won't be thinking that far ahead and would like to have a good IPL tournament.
The biggest threat for CSK is their ageing unit and Dhoni hasn't yet produced any second line of potent Indian batters. Players like Rayudu or Rahane might just find it difficult to up the ante in high-scoring games.
The other issue will be lack of quality Indian spinners that will be a worry for Dhoni. One of the reasons is Jadeja's slightly underwhelming T20 record in recent times. While Jadeja has been a revelation at No. 5 or 6 in Test matches, the same can't be said about his left-arm spin as far as T20 cricket is concerned.
If one checks the records, there are innumerable examples where Dhoni hasn't used Jadeja's quota of overs. There are a few left-arm spinners like U-19 World Cup winner Nishant Sindhu and Chattisgarh's Ajay Mandal but it is unlikely that Dhoni will try a rookie in a high-pressure tournament if he is not convinced.
Last year, Dhoni did give Mumbai leg-spinner Prashant Solanki a couple of games but his stateside played him in only two Syed Mushtaq Ali T20 games since that and he is out of quality match-practice.
In the fast bowling department, young Simarjeet Singh, who is deceptively quick, and Lasith Malinga's 'action doppelganger' Matheesa Pathirana will get a chance to stamp their class.
Pathirana briefly showed that his slinging action could create trouble for the batters. Of late, he hasn't been a part of the Sri Lankan squad and has been playing domestic cricket after ILT20 in UAE.
But in CSK, it is about players Dhoni believes could do the job for his side and Pathirana, if fit, seems to be one of those.
Dhoni, a master strategist, could also use 'Impact Player' rules better than many in case of overseas recruits. He could easily field three foreign players during batting innings and then include the fourth during bowling innings.
In that case, someone like a Mitchell Santner might prove to be a handful on Chepauk track.
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