NEW DELHI (Reuters) - Twenty20 cricket is perceived primarily as a stage on which young players perform best but the war horses at Chennai Super Kings have turned that notion on its head by marching into the Indian Premier League (IPL) final for a record seventh time.
When the franchise completed their recruitment drive at January’s IPL player auction, some cheeky fans likened the Chennai dugout to a “retirement home”.
The joke is now firmly on those detractors after 36-year-old Mahendra Singh Dhoni and his ‘Dad’s Army’ moved to within one win of a third IPL title.
Chennai’s unlikely run to the final remained on course thanks to a 33-year-old South African, who snatched an improbable two-wicket victory from the jaws of defeat in Tuesday’s qualifier against Sunrisers Hyderabad.
Faf du Plessis rediscovered his batting magic to smash an unbeaten 67 and complete a tricky chase, sealing victory thanks to a booming six with five balls to spare.
“The vision that the franchise had, of keeping experienced players, was something a lot of people questioned,” du Plessis said in a post-match interview.
“We have a few old bodies in the team but in big moments you want experience there.”
Chennai’s progression to Sunday’s final in Mumbai is even more impressive considering they were suspended for two seasons following an illegal betting controversy before returning for the 11th edition of the tournament.
The franchise, which looked keen to retain the core of their previous squads in January’s auction, fielded seven players over 30 against Hyderabad.
While the likes of 37-year-old Harbhajan Singh and Shane Watson, a year his junior, had forgettable outings, du Plessis’ blistering counter-attack more than made up for their failures.
Chasing a modest 140 for victory, Chennai suffered top and middle-order meltdowns before du Plessis mounted a spectacular fightback.
The Proteas captain reiterated the importance of expertise in such circumstances.
“It’s nice we have so many experienced players to rely on. Chennai’s been to seven-eight finals, so (have) the experience of big games,” du Plessis said.
“MS (Dhoni) understands what to ask of the players. We’re playing our best cricket at the moment.”
Dhoni used du Plessis’ knock to underline the team mantra.
“Faf’s innings is where experience counts,” the former India captain said. “It’s not easy to not play a lot of games, but I always say you need to train your mind as well. That’s where the experience comes in.
“You visualise what your role is, how you can contribute, and Faf has been brilliant.”
Reporting by Amlan Chakraborty; Editing by John O'Brien