Gurunath Meiyappan's visage gives little away. He's silent and tough, focussed and probing. His handshake is firm. He gauges the ambience and the protagonists, his eyes flicking across the room. Once Gurunath settles down, he relaxes. And, yes, he has the occasional smile of genuine warmth.
The 35-year-old often journeys from the reel world to the real one on a compelling highway. Hailing from the family of the original dream merchants of South Indian cinema, the iconic AVM Productions, he comprehends life's myriad hues.
A multi-dimensional personality, he has switched between two diverse sports —motor racing and golf — at a competitive level and employed the experience to telling effect while managing a cricket team.
Committed to goals
Commitment is the motif on Gurunath's canvas. As Team Principal of the Indian Premier League's most successful outfit, Chennai Super Kings (CSK), he adds immense value to the side as its mentor. CSK sees motes of light in darkness, fights back from adversity.
The Chennai side made the final in Season1, entered the last four the next year, and bagged a unique double of the IPL and the Champion's League titles in 2010.
It has also walked away with the fair play award twice. “We play to win but want to do so in the right fashion,” says Gurunath.
He learnt much about possessing strong values while playing golf. “In a day's golf, you can discover much about a man's character — how he is as a person, and how he would do business. Everything,” he says.
Given that Gurunath has zipped around racing tracks in mean machines at Formula Asia, he understands the dynamics of the speedy Twenty20 variety and the need to retain equanimity during stressful times.
He is a familiar face in the CSK dugout as an island of calm in a sea suffused with emotions. The remarkable success story of the CSK, he points out, is as much due to the strong bonding in the team as dishing out enterprising cricket.
Team spirit has enabled the side negotiate sharp bends. Situations have thrown up heroes. And the wonderful chemistry between Gurunath, skipper Mahendra Singh
Dhoni and Stephen Fleming has been a key element.
Gurunath provides fascinating insights into Dhoni's qualities. “He's a strong but an uncomplicated man. He's captain cool, likes to keep things simple.”
Here, Gurunath reveals the difference of opinion between Dhoni and former CSK coach Kepler Wessels in Season 1. He travels back to a presentation by the South African ahead of CSK's semifinal against Kings XI Punjab in Mumbai.
“Dhoni said there was too much technique and theory by Wessels for Twenty20 cricket. On the team bus immediately after, he told (Muttiah) Muralitharan that he would bowl with the new ball. Murali was outstanding with a game-changing spell,” says Gurunath. Wessels left the next year and Fleming took over.
Indeed, Dhoni has been CSK's inspirational captain. “We really missed him when he was injured after the game in Kolkata last year. There was something missing in the side. When he returned, the team was on the road again.”
Harmony and cohesion
CSK's rise has been underlined by harmony and cohesion in the team management. Gurunath says, “Before every game, Dhoni, Fleming and I exchange our elevens at 5.45 p.m. (for the night matches).
Incredibly, there has never been a difference of more than one name in our teams!”
Gurunath dwells on Fleming's emphasis on planning and execution, his sharp cricketing mind. He goes back to the IPL auction ahead of Season IV. “Fleming and I spent countless hours in the lead-up to the auction. In the last three days, we conducted mock auctions, picked around 45 different combinations.”
CSK held its nerve, displayed clarity of thought. “We were guided by what we wanted while keeping an eye on rest of the franchises.”
Says Gurunath, “We bought back Michael Hussey again, ahead of Brendon McCullum, not only because the Australian is such a dynamic batsman but due to his excellent rapport with the team members. In fact, Murali Vijay confessed to me that he wanted to open with Hussey again.”
Gurunath describes off spin wizard Muttiah Muralitharan as someone who can lift the side with deeds and words. “We went to up to $1 million to retain him but beyond that point we had to be careful with our money. However, R. Ashwin has developed rapidly and we had to make a choice. We covered our flanks and also roped in promising Sri Lankan off spinner Suraj Randiv.”
The side, Gurunath says, was interested in Dirk Nannes but settled for a more familiar left-arm paceman in the lion-hearted Doug Bollinger who made a difference in Season III. Pacemen Ben Hilfenhous and Nuwan Kulasekara were smart picks. Scott Styris and Dwayne Bravo brought all-round depth to the side. All through, money was spent wisely.
Gurunath is pleased about CSK's strong local connect. “We retained Vijay and won back Ashwin and S. Badrinath although we had to shell out more than we expected to. And there are promising cricketers around such as S. Anirudha. At some point, he could open the innings.”
There are challenges ahead and Gurunath eyes the future with optimism. He has been making the right moves — with a motor racing champion's guts and a golfer's patience.