The enduring allure of cricket lies in the large array of choices it keeps throwing up. Bowlers have to decide what type of ball to bowl to a particular batsman in a specific situation. Batsmen have to balance strike rates with risks of getting out, while captains and coaches face a myriad choices before and during a game.
This gets accentuated in the Indian Premier League (IPL). The T20 format itself makes every ball an event. Then there’s the richness of the league, which draws a talent pool that ensures all eight teams are well-matched, and mistakes are costly. In a series between unequal rival national teams, errors often get covered up. Not so in the IPL.
For example, if you make the mistake of choosing a journeyman player like Daniel Christian over New Zealand’s rising star Kyle Jamieson in the playing eleven, and then give him an over when the game is in balance, it can knock you out of the IPL. That’s not the only reason why Virat Kohli-led Royal Challengers Bangalore (RCB) lost to Eoin Morgan-led Kolkata Knight Riders (KKR) in the IPL eliminator on 11 October. However, conceding 22 runs in one over in a low-scoring game on a tricky track as good as sealed it.
The previous day, in the qualifier between the top two teams—Chennai Super Kings (CSK) and Delhi Capitals (DC)—the young DC captain Rishabh Pant chose another bits-and-pieces player, Tom Curran, to deliver the final over of the match, even though Kagiso Rabada, one of the great fast bowlers in the game today, had an over left in his quota. CSK captain Mahendra Singh Dhoni made the most of the mistake, knocking off the 13 runs needed with two balls to spare.
Great champions of tennis like Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer know that winning is often a matter of reducing unforced errors, more than hitting winners. The choices made by Kohli and Pant were, in effect, unforced errors.
Daniel Christian, 38, made his IPL debut way back in 2011. He has been a very ordinary performer in all that time. So what happened to him this IPL was nothing new. In nine matches, he made a total of 14 runs and took four wickets at an economy rate of 9.3. RCB bought Kyle Jamieson for a whopping ₹15 crore in the auction at the start of this season, after the New Zealand pacer made a sensational start to his career last year. Jamieson was also instrumental in New Zealand beating India in the World Test Championship final this year, with a haul of five wickets in the first innings. And yet, he was benched after only a couple of outings in the UAE leg where he bowled a total of four overs. He was run out for four in one game and not out in the other one.
Christian, on the other hand, got game after game despite a string of zeros and ones, prompting jokes in social media about RCB’s binary digit batsman. He was even promoted to number three, which cost RCB dearly in their game against the lowly Sunrisers Hyderabad. The iconic AB de Villiers was number six in the batting order as RCB fell four runs short of a modest victory target of 141. A win in that game would have put RCB above Chennai to be in the top two and get two shots at making the final.
RCB coach Mike Hesson from New Zealand was the one who pushed for the acquisition of Jamieson at the auction. So it’s hard to understand why an aging cricketer with a poor track record in the IPL would be favoured over one of the most exciting all-rounders to emerge in recent times. Kohli speaks often about going with his gut feeling, but on this evidence, it would’ve been better to rely on cold logic.
Perhaps Hesson and Kohli thought Christian would prove as effective with his medium pace on the UAE’s tacky pitches as Harshal Patel, the league’s top wicket-taker this season. But Patel has more than slower balls in his quiver. He combines those with unerring accuracy, intelligent variations, and an ability to crank it up for a surprise bouncer or a yorker. To think Christian, in his 11th IPL season, would suddenly emulate that was wishful, and there had been little evidence to justify that optimism in the previous five games.
Another decision by Kohli that defied logic was opting to bat first after winning the toss in Sharjah, where results have favoured the chasing team. The ball comes on a little better later in the night. So Morgan justifiably sounded elated on being invited to chase in the eliminator.
Commentators talk of the pressure of chasing in a big game for batsmen. What’s overlooked is the pressure on bowlers to hold their nerve and deliver balls accurately at crunch time. Avesh Khan’s brain fade in the last over of DC’s final league game against RCB, where Srikar Bharat smashed a six off a full toss, immediately comes to mind. Delhi have now lost two consecutive games with nervy last overs.
The Avesh Khan over had a domino effect, as it resulted in Curran bowling the final over against CSK. That wasn’t the only unforced error that cost DC the game. Earlier, after a good start with Prithvi Shaw going strong, DC sent bowling all-rounder Axar Patel to bat at No.4, ostensibly to hit out against left-arm spinner Ravindra Jadeja. It caused a loss of momentum as Patel got stuck, delaying the entry of the much more accomplished strikers Rishabh Pant and Shimron Hetmyer.
Pant will learn from these mistakes, because he has already shown great potential as a captain to take DC to the top of the league table. For Kohli, however, the error-strewn eliminator against KKR was the end of the road as an IPL captain. In nine seasons as captain, he made the playoffs four times, and never won the title, despite leading a team with iconic players. Unforced errors let him down time and again. But he does leave a legacy of leadership in which new talent was discovered and nurtured, exemplified by Yuzvendra Chahal and Mohammad Siraj. Perhaps that’s a good enough legacy.