It was a very good first year for Gujarat Lions last season. Coming into the tournament as one of the teams that replaced the suspended Rajasthan Royals (RR) and Chennai Super Kings (CSK), they had the chance to pick up players from those two teams and did well in their choices. While Rising Pune Supergiant got the first shot in the 2016 IPL players' draft, picking a bankable name in Mahendra Singh Dhoni, Gujarat Lions opted for Suresh Raina as captain and the reliability of Dwayne Bravo, Brendon McCullum and James Faulkner as their overseas stars. In the end that worked out far better for them.
That formula allowed them to comfortably top the group stage last year, winning nine matches and losing just five. The Lions didn’t have any one batsman right at the top of the run-scoring charts, with Raina finishing as the 10th highest run-getter, but they did have five players that scored between 300 and 400 runs. Aaron Finch, Dwayne Smith, Raina, Dinesh Karthik and McCullum all made significant contributions. Sixteen partnerships of more than 50 across last season showed the value of runs from the whole of the top order. If the Lions are to match the success that they had last year, this same approach will be the key.
At the auction this year, the Lions did not splash the cash as other teams did. They bought a number of local players who will most likely warm the bench for most of this year’s event. The only big name signing was England’s Jason Roy who further adds to the team's powerful top order.
From a bowling point of view, the star last year was Dhawal Kulkarni who finished with 18 wickets with his clever seam bowling. He isn’t quick, but he is smart. Kulkarni did well for Rajasthan Royals, but 2016 was his best ever IPL season. His returns last year were enough to see him picked for the T20Is against Zimbabwe and a call up for the Ranchi ODI versus New Zealand. Another great season and he could find himself as a first team regular for the national side and as playing a big part in the Lions making the playoffs once again.
The second highest wicket-taker for the Lions in 2016 was Bravo who claimed 17 wickets to further cement his place as the leading wicket-taker in the history of T20 cricket. He has 367 wickets, some 61 more than Lasith Malinga who is his closest rival. There are few deliveries more effective than the Bravo slower ball, and of all the players that became available from the CSK squad, he should have been the most sought after. That he wasn’t the first one picked says a lot about the mercurial nature of IPL selections.
Bravo will be vital for the Lions again this season. Not only can the West Indian be relied upon to take wickets, he is also able to bat anywhere in the batting line up from four to six. He has three Test match hundreds after all. Bravo beautifully balances any T20 team in which he features. Few have had more of an impact on the IPL than Bravo.
With the experienced heads of Munaf Patel and Praveen Kumar in the squad there is the makings of a very decent bowling line-up, with the one slight concern being that they do not have an out and out quick bowler to make breakthroughs with the new ball inside the powerplay overs. Bravo, Kulkarni, Munaf and Praveen are all canny operators, but none of them are express.
With Ravindra Jadeja, the world number one Test bowler, in their squad, there will be a lot of pressure on him to provide both control and wickets if teams do get off to a flyer in the opening stages of their innings. But he is weary after playing 13 Tests across India’s mammoth home season. He has been advised to rest for the first two weeks of the Lions’ season. This leaves a large gap that will be difficult to fill.
The key to success at the IPL is squad balance. There needs to be experienced and impactful overseas players that can complement a core group of local players and also cover up in case of injury. While the reserve bench of the Lions could conceivably be seen as a weakness, they are one of the stronger teams in the league. They should be in the top four, and from there they should do better than last year when two consecutive defeats robbed them of a chance to play in the final.
The real interest for the Lions will be where they stand in 2018 when the Royals and CSK are due to return. Are they going to be retained in a 10-team league? Could we see a team that has had success both on and off the field done away with to make way for the tainted brands of the suspended teams? This could be the Lions last hurrah, and they should be in the mix for the championship at the end of IPL 2017.