Suresh Raina
Suresh Raina of the Chennai Super Kings in action during the Indian Premier League 2018 match against the Kings XI Punjab in Pune, Maharashtra. Image Credit: PTI

Who will take Suresh Raina’s spot in the Chennai Super Kings batting order? The question cropped up from the moment Raina walked away from the CSK camp in the UAE.

No. 3 in a very crucial spot. An early wicket means the new batsmen would be facing the new ball. If the openers have strung together a good partnership, the one-day drop player should be able to provide the acceleration straight away. So, the spot is generally reserved for one of the best batsmen in the side; a technically accomplished one.

Raina didn’t exactly fit into that mould. So, the 33-year-old created a mould for himself, and it worked very well for the Chennai Super Kings. Irrespective of the situation, he would come in and take command with an array of blistering strokes. His weakness against the short ball that blighted his international career didn’t matter on India’s placid pitches. Raina became the most influential player for CSK and their leading scorer with 5,368 runs. A true game-changer. That’s why his absence hurts.

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Whoever comes at the fall of the first CSK wicket will always be measured against Raina’s free-scoring ways. The replacement won’t be another Raina. Instead, it will be someone who will fit into the CSK strategy.

Soon after Raina’s departure from the UAE, several reports hinted at Ruturaj Gaikwad as a possible replacement. But he’s yet to report for practice following the coronavirus infection. That rules him out for the early part of the tournament.

Former India opener Gautam Gambhir, who had led Kolkata Knight Riders to victory in 2014, was quick to suggest that captain Mahendra Singh Dhoni would be the ideal man for the spot. And the name doing the rounds, of late, has been Ambati Rayudu. Faf du Plessis’s name too has been thrown into the ring.

Former New Zealander Scott Styris is a firm backer of Rayudu, who had batted in that position during his eight-year stint with the Mumbai Indians from 2010. His other suggestions included Gaikwad and Ravindra Jadeja, saying that it entirely depends on what the Chennai Super Kings want from that spot.

Can Ravindra Jadeja fill the breach?

“A couple of options they could go with, the two overseas players at the top and bring in the youngster Gaikwad as well or they may decide to have a pinch-hitter. I know that Simon Doull, my fellow New Zealander, felt that Mitchell Santner could go to the top. Maybe even someone like [Ravindra] Jadeja, too, who we have seen in India colours, has been so good, so they need to find that No. 3,” Styris told the Star Sports show Cricket Connected.

Chennai have remained unperturbed by the speculations swirling around. There have been no hints. The first sign of their approach will be seen on September 19, when they take on the Mumbai Indians in the opener in Abu Dhabi.

There’s depth and quality in the CSK squad. The possibilities are several. Since we can’t read the minds of Dhoni and coach Stephen Fleming, let’s look at the options before them.

Ruturaj Gaikwad
Ruturaj Gaikwad Image Credit: Twitter

Ruturaj Gaikwad

If CSK are planning for the long term, Gaikwad would be a good choice when he’s fit to play. His displays for the India ‘A’ have shown that the 22-year-old has the skill and technique to acquire the No. 3 slot. A natural stroke-player, Gaikwad is capable of scoring swiftly on either side of the wicket; he can find the gaps and clear the boundaries with ease.

What works against him is his lack of experience. Although Gaikwad has been with the Chennai Super Kings, he’s yet to make his debut. That could change in the UAE. The Pune batsman has been prolific in the domestic circuit over the last two years, and his India ‘A’ showing too should work in his favour.

Murali Vijay
Murali Vijay Image Credit: AFP

Murali Vijay

The former India opener would be a good fit, if CSK are looking at a short term fix. He has a good technique and can shift gears quickly. Ideal attributes for a No. 3 batsman. Vijay has had a good run in the IPL with over 2,500 runs from 103 matches.

His best seasons go back in time. In 2010, Vijay was at his belligerent best racking up 458 runs for CSK, including a century, with a strike rate of 156.84. Six years later, he would pile 453 runs for Kings XI Punjab at a strike rate of 124.45.

At 36, Vijay’s best may be behind him. But he could keep the seat warm for Gaikwad if CSK decides to go that route.

Chennai Super Kings' Ambati Rayudu
Ambati Rayudu Image Credit: AFP

Ambati Rayadu

On the sheer strength of skill and performance, the No. 3 spot should be Rayudu’s. But he knows that nothing can be taken for granted. He was the strongest contender for the spot in the Indian team for the ODI World Cup in England last year, only to lose out to young Vijay Shankar.

Rayudu, who came in one-drop for Mumbai Indians, has been a steady scorer in every IPL season since 2010, and his best came in 2018 when he posted over 600 runs for Chennai. Although 2019 was a bit underwhelming, the 34-year-old from Andhra Pradesh still has plenty of fire in his belly.

His ability to control the innings allows other strokemakers to play around him, but Rayudu can just as easily lift the scoring when the situation demands. He certainly is the frontrunner to take Raina’s job.

Faf du Plessis
Faf du Plessis Image Credit: AFP

Faf du Plessis

If Faf du Plessis has to fit in the No. 3 slot for Chennai Super Kings, they would need to find an opening partner for Shane Watson. That shouldn’t be a worry since Rayudu, Vijay or Gaikwad could move up. But then don’t expect Du Plessis to do a Raina. It would be a more sedate role, like the one he performs for South Africa in the same spot. One that allows him to give the freedom for other strokeplayers to keep the tempo going.

Besides providing stability to the innings, Du Plessis can handle the middle overs well given his expertise in tackling the spinners. And he can push up the rate when required. So the South African captain too is an option for CSK.

Mahendra Singh Dhoni
Mahendra Singh Dhoni Image Credit: AFP

Mahendra Singh Dhoni

CSK’s talismanic captain will make a suitable replacement for Raina. He can be as destructive as his former deputy, but can also inject some stability. When you look back Dhoni’s early days in the Indian team, captain Saurav Ganguly and Rahul Dravid have always pushed him up the order so that he can express himself. Cricket watchers in the UAE will remember his innings against Pakistan in Abu Dhabi, several years ago. It was a knock that blended aggression and caution.

Moving Dhoni up creates another problem. It will rob CSK of his pinch-hitting prowess late in the order, besides any repair work in the event of a top-order collapse. They will have to rely on Dwayne Bravo. Which means the West Indian wouldn’t have any room for failure. That isn’t an ideal situation.

So the best solution would be for Dhoni to slip into the No. 3 role only when the situation demands. That should work well for the CSK.