About 10 days ago, Arsenal completed a 2-1 win over Manchester City in the FA Cup semi-final. It was a seminal moment for the club, and for their beleaguered manager Arsene Wenger. The Gunners had been wilting under increasing pressure from their fans to perform, particularly the manager, as his obdurate ways of managing the club and the tactics deployed were lacking modern-day relevance.
After a long losing run in January and February, Wenger brought about a definitive change in his defensive line-up, using a back three with full backs instead of a stale back-four defensive line. It wasn’t really a eureka moment, for Chelsea, Manchester United and Manchester City had already deployed this strategy at different times, as did other teams not only in the Premier League but in other leagues of Europe as well.
But for Wenger, and Arsenal, it was a ‘tectonic shift’ in thinking. He had done something different from usual, that last word spanning an era longer than the past ‘trophy-less’ decade for this club. Whether Arsenal win the FA Cup against Chelsea (a team that uses this full-back tactic with greater efficiency) or not, whether Wenger signs a new contract and stays at the club or not, that win over City in the semi-final at Wembley won’t be forgotten easily.
Similarly, whether Delhi Daredevils win another match in this IPL season (let alone qualifying for the play-offs) or not, whether Rahul Dravid and other members of the team management stay on or not (Rajasthan Royals are expected to make a comeback in 2018), their six-wicket win over Sunrisers Hyderabad will be remembered (at least until their next run of losses, given how quickly IPL progresses unlike the Premier League).
Like Arsenal, the Daredevils overcame a stumbling block in this victory. There were similarities in how the Gunners’ tried hard against City to that of Delhi’s batting and bowling performances together against Hyderabad. It is tough to recall when did the two aspects come together so handsomely for them previously in this tournament. Perhaps, in their second game against Rising Pune Supergiant, and yes, that was quite a while ago.
Like Arsenal again, the key pointer from this game was the change in thinking of the Daredevils. Since they went on that downward spiral, the stubbornness to bring about change was almost Wenger-like. They kept doing the same thing again and again, making the same mistakes repeatedly, almost akin to beating a dead dog with a stick. In that sense, getting bowled out for 67 runs against Kings XI Punjab was perhaps the last straw.
When the teams were announced at the toss, Delhi’s changes — Jayant Yadav and Angelo Mathews — seemed an exercise in futility. Sam Billings was benched again, Shahbaz Nadeem was nowhere to be seen, and despite the official information, it was assumed that Zaheer Khan is out of the remaining matches, leaving Karun Nair in change. Unlike Mohali though, there seemed to be an air of confidence about the young skipper, almost as if he had been given permission to do his will — make his decisions — in this game.
Yet, it didn’t appear so whilst the Daredevils were loitering around in the field. On most days in this IPL season, their batting and bowling has been a let down. This time around it was about their fielding. There was a general disinterest on the field; a real lack of energy, and it could be seen in the misfielding or even the absence of a passionate diving about in the initial overs, and then came the drops. Make no mistake, it was a concentrated effort by the Delhi bowlers, similar to their game at the Wankhede.
But the Sunrisers are a more explosive outfit than Mumbai Indians, especially in their top-order, and it could be seen in how one after another, David Warner, Shikhar Dhawan, Kane Williamson and Yuvraj Singh put the Delhi attack to the sword. The latter’s drop — by Sanju Samson — was a catalyst in that light, for the hosts realized the game was swiftly moving away. Given their pedestrian batting efforts in the last two weeks, there weren’t many willing to bet on Delhi chasing down 186.
This is where the change in mind set became most apparent. It began with Nair attacking the bowlers in ferocious manner, surpassing his previous best of 33 since that triple hundred. Sure, he scored only 39 runs (20 balls) in all, but the difference was in his approach. Earlier, after a quick start, he tried to settle down and bed in for the long haul, as if carrying a weight of expectations after that wonderful Chennai knock. Against Hyderabad, he simply didn’t look to slow down, come what may, and this is how he has been known to successfully bat in the shortest format.
Miraculously then, Rishabh Pant came in to bat at No 3. One has cried hoarse (in writing of course) that the belligerent young batsman needed to bat higher up — at this spot or even opening the innings — ever since he scored that half-century in the very first game of the season. And this didn’t really need to be pointed out by an obscure reporter. Instead, the highly paid Daredevils’ team management should have been able to spot this move at least two weeks ago, when the downfall began.
Delhi had suffered through their lacklustre middle overs, and Pant’s elevation was a breath of fresh air. He stroked 34 off 20 balls, but more importantly, didn’t let the run-rate climb down after the score read 46/1 at the end of the powerplay overs. When he got out, Delhi were placed at 109/3 in 11.4 overs, ahead of Sunrisers’ score at that same stage. The Daredevils’ middle and lower order, comprising their big-hitters, didn’t have a mountain to climb for once.
Shreyas Iyer, Corey Anderson and Chris Morris didn’t let down their team’s hopes, and for once, Delhi got across the finish line, that too with five balls to spare. It was a complete team effort — in both batting and bowling, if not so much in fielding. Almost as if they wanted to prove coach and mentor Dravid right, when he said in Mohali that this is a team better than 67 all out.
Most importantly, they won because someone in the Daredevils’ management decided to change things around in the batting order. Maybe it wasn’t an individual decision, and maybe it was a collective one. The underlying point is that Delhi now have some respite from their losing run, and the understanding of how they rectified that situation.
So, the question that remains is this. Like Arsenal (hoping to win the FA Cup), can the Daredevils make the best out of their five remaining games (four at home) and make a mad-dash bid for the play-offs?