You might think that by now, in the 16th season of the Indian Premier League (IPL), coaches and captains have seen it all. Many of them are among the best cricketing minds to grace the game. And yet, we keep seeing as many inexplicable decisions that cost games as smart moves that put a team on a winning track.
Take Delhi Capitals (DC), for example. Their coaching team is as good as it gets. Ricky Ponting led Australia in its heyday and turned around the fortunes of Mumbai Indians (MI) by handing over the captaincy to Rohit Sharma in 2013. Sourav Ganguly took Indian cricket to a new level. Shane Watson played in five IPL finals and won three titles with two of the IPL’s finest captains, Shane Warne and MS Dhoni. And DC skipper David Warner won the title for Sunrisers Hyderabad (SRH) in 2016.
And yet the first half of DC’s campaign this year turned into a shambles with their batting misfiring. The accident to Rishabh Pant was a big blow, but the coaching team made matters worse with their deployment of batting resources.
Axar Patel, for example, has been in such tremendous batting form over the past year that it could not have gone unnoticed. And yet uncapped batsman Sarfaraz Khan and newbies Azam Hakim Khan and Abhishek Porel batted ahead of him in the early games. He crept up the order subsequently when his hitting prowess could not be ignored any longer, but even then DC failed to make the best use of this all-rounder on a hot streak.
In DC’s first encounter against MI, for instance, Patel smashed 54 in 25 balls but he could have done a lot more damage if uncapped batsmen like Yash Dhull and Lalit Yadav hadn’t preceded him in the batting order. In the end, MI scrambled to a last ball win, which suggests DC could have won that game if Patel had batted higher than No.7.
He top-scored in a low-scoring win over SRH but remained at No.7 in the next encounter with the same opposition where DC fell just 9 runs short of SRH’s target of 197. Patel brought DC close with an unbeaten 29 in 14 balls and may well have got a win if he had been sent out before Manish Pandey, Priyam Garg, and Sarfaraz Khan, who scored at a run a ball collectively.
Patel’s bowling has been equally effective most of the time, making him one of the MVPs (most valuable players) of the tournament. So it’s quite a shocker that he did not get a single over to bowl in one of the matches DC lost. Given such shoddy treatment of their prime asset, it’s no surprise DC find themselves at the bottom of the table, with an odd win here and there.
At the other end of the spectrum, table-toppers Gujarat Titans (GT) continue to show how the new franchise won the title last year and remain the favourites this season, even if they too experience a brain fade now and then. Head coach Ashish Nehra has been a revelation and old pro Gary Kirsten from South Africa takes care of the batting.
One of their out-of-the-box moves this time was the replacement of Sai Sudarshan. Commentators waxed eloquent over the stylish left-hander who took the place of the injured Kane Williamson in GT’s opening encounter with the Chennai Super Kings (CSK), and then made an unbeaten 62 in a successful run chase against DC in the next game. He followed that up with a fifty against the Kolkata Knight Riders (KKR).
And yet, he was discarded after two dismissals for 19 and 20, the second one being a run-out.
Commentators criticised the move, attributing it to skipper Hardik Pandya’s desire to bat at No.3, where Williamson and his substitute Sudarshan had been slotted.
That’s a hard one to digest from the commentators branded ‘The Insiders’ in IPL 2023. Pandya hasn’t shown a selfish side to his cricket and his razor sharp focus on team success is the reason why GT has been on top for two years running.
A more probable reason is that strike rates have become even more important this season because of the ‘impact player’ rule, which effectively gives every team an extra batsman.
Earlier a loss of momentum after the powerplay to keep wickets in hand to go all guns blazing in the latter half of the innings was tolerated. That’s no longer the case, and Sudarshan’s run-a-ball batting at No.3 in his last two games was just not good enough for GT.
The defending champions lost one of those games to Rajasthan Royals (RR) and it took a last ball boundary by the inimitable Rahul Tewatia to win the other one against Punjab Kings (PBKS). “To be very honest, I don’t appreciate the game going this close from the situation we were in. There’s definitely a lot for us to learn from this game,” Pandya remarked in the post-match interview.
That’s a more likely reason for the GT skipper to move to No.3, where he has direct control over the batting momentum depending on the situation in a game. It has nothing to do with personal preference, because Pandya was actually more successful at No.4 last season.
What this move enabled was bringing in Vijay Shankar as a late order striker with six-hitting prowess. Shankar had disappeared from the scene after an injury made him leave the 2019 World Cup squad. He didn’t set the Ganges on fire in his first two games but GT persisted with the new batting plan. Then Shankar made an unbeaten 51 in 24 balls in a challenging run chase of 180 against KKR. His batting partner David Miller played second fiddle for a change, applauding Shankar’s free-flowing hits.
As for Pandya at No.3, his anchor knock of 66 against Lucknow Super Giants (LSG) on a dodgy pitch proved to be a match-winner, after a string of failures from the GT skipper. So the move proved to be a double whammy.
GT may again change it up to bring Sudarshan back under different circumstances. Being bold and flexible is the name of the game, whatever some commentators may say.
Every team has been caught short with the impact that the new substitution rule has had on taking team totals over 200 and even crossing 250. Those who adapt the best will prevail.
KKR is yet to figure out, for example, that switching between Rahmanullah Gurbaz of Afghanistan and Jason Roy from England as an overseas opener is not required. Play them both for an explosive powerplay. All-rounder David Wiese can make way to enable this. After all, with the impact substitution rule, all-rounders are no longer of as much value as before, unless they’re outstanding in either batting or bowling.
And when will Royal Challengers Bangalore (RCB) realise that their best bet may be to play all three of their marquee batsmen—Faf du Plessis, Virat Kohli, and Glenn Maxwell—at the top? Trying Anuj Rawat, Shabaz Ahmed, Mahipal Lomror, and Dinesh Karthik at the No.3 slot before Maxwell didn’t work. Did the 5 balls Lomror consumed for a duck before Maxwell came out and smashed 76 in 36 balls cost them the game against CSK? RCB lost by just 8 runs after CSK posted 226.
Sumit Chakraberty is a writer based in Bengaluru. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org
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