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Does Shane Watson need a break?

Shane Watson is bowled BCCI

After racking up seven wins in their first eight games in IPL 2019, Chennai Super Kings have suffered back-to-back losses - one without and one with MS Dhoni in the XI. That they lost by just one run against Royal Challengers Bangalore on Sunday was down to Dhoni's sheer brilliance.

There is, however, trouble in Super Kings' paradise, and it begins right at the top. Shane Watson, the man of the 2018 IPL final, is now walking a tightrope like WWE's Kofi Kingston does at Royal Rumble events.

Only six players have featured in each of the ten matches Super Kings have played so far, and Watson features among them. Yet, he has struggled to get starts, forget converting them. All up, he has laboured to 147 runs in ten innings at an average of 14.70 and strike rate of 112.21. Among openers that have faced at least 50 balls this season, Watson has the third-highest dot-ball percentage (54.96).

Let us not forget that Watson was one of the most valuable players for the defending champions last season. Then, at 37, he became the oldest centurion in the Big Bash League. He followed it up with a bumper stint in the Pakistan Super League, where he amassed a chart-topping 430 runs in 12 innings at an average of 43 and strike rate of 143.81.

The ball largely came on to the bat in Australia and then in the UAE, but then the slower-than-usual Chennai pitch has posed a difficult challenge for Watson. He set up Super Kings' victory against Delhi Capitals at Feroz Shah Kotla with a typically punchy 44 off 26 balls, but otherwise hasn't made a noteworthy contribution on the road since. His struggles at Chepauk have been starker: he has managed just 56 runs in four innings at an average of 14 and strike rate 100.

Having been unable to rotate the strike, he has turned to his go-to big shots - the slog-sweep and the pull - but has holed out while attempting to clear the longer leg-side boundaries. The inclusion of Faf du Plessis, who is more adept at wedging the ball into the gaps, briefly masked Super Kings' top-order meltdowns, but both him and Watson fell to reckless strokes at the M Chinnaswamy Stadium on Sunday.

Similar risky strokes worked for Watson in Pune (the home base) last year, where the ball slides on to the bat and the outfield is much quicker than the one in Chennai. Watson had a ball in Pune, chalking up 264 runs in five innings at an average of 52.80 and strike rate of 168.15. In Chennai, he can't quite get the ball away. To add to Super Kings' concerns, Watson is among the slower movers in the field, and rarely bowls these days - he hasn't bowled at all in the IPL this season.

Super Kings' coach Stephen Fleming has admitted to the top-order wobbles ramping up the pressure on Ambati Rayudu and Dhoni in the middle order, but he continued to back Watson to come good, while batting coach Michael Hussey pointed out that Watson has been hitting the ball well in the nets.

So, with the promising Sam Billings and a hungry M Vijay on the bench, should Super Kings rethink their top order? Perhaps Watson could do with a mini break too, having constantly been on the road for the past two months in the PSL closely followed by IPL.

Billings can't muscle the ball like Watson, but he has a reputation of being a busy player and he showed he can stand up to pressure last year when he sealed a tense chase for Super Kings in the homecoming at Chepauk.

Meanwhile, this Vijay isn't the Vijay of 2010, but he has recent form on his side and is keen to prove he still has it in T20 cricket. After being ignored for the initial phase of the 20-over Syed Mushtaq Ali Trophy that preceded the IPL, Vijay entered the Tamil Nadu side as a replacement player and hit 261 runs in four innings at a strike rate of nearly 150.

Dhoni's team are in pole position to make the playoffs, but the think tank would want the top order to be solid rather than stuttering in the knockouts. Is that going to happen with Watson or without Watson?