The Gujarat Lions are in the process of learning a lesson that others have been well aware of for many years; as good as your batting can be in Twenty20 cricket, the way you win matches is with the ball. Without wickets in the age of hyper-aggressive batsmen who spend us much building muscles in the gym as they do practicing shots in the nets any score, no matter how large, is within reach. Runs are a wonderful, wickets are the trump card that win you championships.
On Sunday in Mumbai, the Lions put on a very reasonable total on an uncharacteristically slow Wankhede pitch, and then their inability to collect regular wickets saw the Mumbai Indians chase their 177 run target comfortably to win by six wickets with three balls to spare. After the much-needed victory against Rising Pune Supergiant in their previous match, the same issues that beset the Lions in their first two games returned.
Against Supergiant, Andrew Tye picked up five wickets including a hat-trick. On Sunday he managed another two victims, one with his “knuckleball” delivery that has been so effective for the Western Australian in recent years.
“"It has probably taken me five-six years to get to the stage where it [the knuckle ball] is today," Tye told the IPL’s website. ”I have practised it hard and have practised with the right intent. Now, it is my most powerful weapon in T20 cricket.” He isn’t wrong.
While Tye’s knuckleball and other variations were effective, in the absence of any other support from the other Lions bowlers the Indians were never under any real pressure. While Basil Thampi generated decent pace he never looked like taking wickets, and his slower ball is no longer the surprise that it was. If anything it is too slow allowing the batsmen time to readjust. He is a young man and has all the skills he needs to succeed at this level, but this may be a year too early for him to make a real impact.
There were wickets for Praveen Kumar and Munaf Patel, but once again neither are going to run through sides. In fact, there is no bowler in the squad who can regularly put together match-winning spells, even Tye can’t be expected to do so all that often. There is no spinner who can turn the ball both ways, there is no world-class pace bowler, and as a result it is hard to see them regularly defending totals that are anything other than remarkable.
The 176 for four against Mumbai was fine, but not daunting. Dwayne Smith fell to the second ball of the match which saw Suresh Raina come to the crease, and the Lions’ captain never got going. He managed just two fours from the 29 balls that he faced, scoring 28 runs before he was caught after skying a catch off Harbhajan Singh.
If Raina never got going, Ishan Kishan never got started, with his 11 runs from 14 balls slowing down the Lions innings at the point when they should have been looking to accelerate. At least Kishan made it on to the middle, the same cannot be said of Aaron Finch.
Finch would have been selected for this game but his kit bag never arrived in Mumbai meaning he had no equipment with which to play. If he had been playing for a club side he could have borrowed some pads and a bat, but that isn’t really an option in the rarefied air of professional sport.
There were some bright sparks for the Lions with the bat. Brendon McCullum made his 37th T20 fifty on his way to 64 from 44 balls, in the process extending his lead over Lions’ coach Brad Hodge as the second-highest run-scorer in the history of T20. It may be almost two years since McCullum last played for his country in a T20, but he is still an absolute class act, both with the bat and in his approach to the game.
Dinesh Karthik made 48 not out from just 26 balls to push the Lions to a score that a more penetrative bowling attack would have had a chance of defending.
Going forward it is difficult to know what the Lions can do differently with the players that they have available. As they will no doubt point out the return of Dwayne Bravo, the leading wicket-taker in T20 history, will add a lot to the side once he is finally fit. But even Bravo can’t sort out all of the issues with the Lions bowling attack, unless he finds the form of his life and bowls from both ends.
The positive, as it has been since before the season began, is that this batting unit can be so impressive if it fires all at the same time. This team have a 220-plus innings total in them, they just need to click.
Only net run rate is keeping the Lions off the bottom of the table, and their next match is against the Royal Challengers Bangalore, the one team below them. A win against Virat Kohli’s team that have had been misfiring as badly as the Lions could be what kick starts their season. If that game against RCB is another loss, the Lions are already in danger of missing out on a knockout sport before the IPL season is even halfway through.