Something odd has happened in this season’s Indian Premier League (IPL). Usually, the final week of the league stage is abuzz with anticipation. According to norm, one or two teams fall away from the pack early, whilst the top two teams are certified qualification. The middle of the table becomes intensely active with as many as three or four teams (there were even five teams in the fray once) chasing those final play-off spots.
The 2017 edition will stand out in the sense that as early as Monday of this final week, the main interest remaining in the league stage is whether Kings XI Punjab can continue to push for the fourth play-off spot. At the time of writing, they are scheduled to take on Mumbai Indians at the Wankhede on Thursday. Imagine, if Punjab lose, then the league stage would be all but over with three days – and five matches – to go.
For the organisers and broadcasters, it can be a nightmarish situation. How to retain the viewers’ interest when the dust has already settled, especially considering this tournament is notorious for ragtag repetitive matches? More pertinently, what goes through minds of the players when they know there are no more points at stake?
The word ‘professional’ comes into focus herein. They are still being paid big bucks, so they have to go out and perform. For some players, the national team comes into focus – a few English and all South African players have already left town to prepare for the international summer. For the remainder, it is about making good on their promises, and aspiring for that next step.
Take the case of Dinesh Karthik and Shreyas Iyer in this regard. Both are in different boats when it comes to their careers. The former is an experienced hand, has already tasted international cricket, and is now making a serious comeback bid. The latter is a budding youngster, considered one of the brighter domestic prospects, and came quite close to an international debut just before the long 2016-17 season ended.
Karthik must be annoyed. He has been in tremendous form these past few months, spearheading Tamil Nadu to victory in the Vijay Hazare Trophy as well bringing up the middle order for Gujarat Lions. He scored 607 runs in nine matches in Vijay Hazare and now has 361 runs in 12 matches in this IPL season. As always, he has been very safe behind the stumps too. Yet, in keeping with his career, the entire limelight has been on someone else.
If it was Mahendra Singh Dhoni earlier, it is Rishabh Pant now, and you cannot argue against the merits of either. Karthik’s case then is just of being in the wrong place at the wrong time when it comes to wicket-keeping. If only he had burst through the scenes a few years earlier, he could have taken over straight from Nayan Mongia and saved Rahul Dravid all those years of fumbling takes behind the wickets thanks to Sourav Ganguly. But, one digresses.
Along with Pant then, Karthik is not on the standby list for the Champions Trophy. In a way, this is just reward for his hard work and toil that he is once again in consideration for the Indian team. And yet, there are no guarantees that he will ever make that final step-up again. The question isn’t about being a backup for Dhoni for the Champions Trophy (or is that Pant, who is also on standby). It is in highlighting that Karthik is only second in running for both Tests and ODIs, while the next T20I team must include Pant, even if it means the end of the road for Dhoni.
In that light, it was encouraging to see his scoring spree against Delhi in Kanpur on Wednesday night. It helped Gujarat Lions set up another tall total against the Daredevils, following on that 209-run target, in the first leg, at the Ferozshah Kotla.
And these two teams must like playing against one another, for they provided another high-scoring thriller, and this time around, another Delhi youngster helped chase down a stiff target of 196 runs.
Now, let us talk about Iyer. Along with Pant, Sanju Samson and Karun Nair, he is the bedrock of Delhi’s punt on youth. Moreover, he is part of this quartet who should – if things go right – represent India in the long term. This is where you ponder over that last bit of ‘things going right’.
Iyer has been central to Mumbai’s Ranji Trophy bid ever since he stormed on the scene back in 2014-2015. Scoring 809 runs in his first season, he followed up with an even more impressive return in 2015-16 with 1,321 runs, taking Mumbai to the title. In between, the Daredevils spent huge money (don’t they always!) to get him for the 2015 IPL season. And for once, their punt didn’t go awry as he finished with 439 runs in 14 matches and claimed the Emerging Player trophy.
It can be assumed that it was Iyer’s success that goaded the Daredevils management to overhaul their squad and go in with a youth policy, gaining over almost all of Rajasthan Royals' squad. Even though the 2016 IPL season didn’t go as per plan, Iyer made it count in the ensuing Ranji season (725 runs) and then struck a chancy 202* off 210 balls against Australia in their practice match in Mumbai. All the talk of this young man being considered for India didn’t seem misplaced when he was called in as standby for Virat Kohli ahead of the Dharamsala Test.
So, what to make of his 96-run knock in Kanpur? Well, not to put a fine print on it, he single-handedly carried Delhi to victory, an improbable one at that. It was unlike Pant’s innings last week at the Kotla. The left-hander had torn apart the Gujarat attack mid-innings and the Lions were always chasing leather thereafter. Here, the Daredevils weren’t in the hunt until late – when Carlos Brathwaite got out, 75 were needed off 36 balls.
Iyer and Pat Cummins took Delhi home with a whirlwind 61-run partnership off 27 balls. Again though, this isn’t about the game for it isn’t anything more than two points that would keep one of these two sides above the other. Table standings in a non-relegation league do not matter, and this match was thus a sideshow, nothing more.
The inherent point is about Iyer’s contribution. In 10 games this season (he started later owing to illness), he has scored 303 runs with two half-centuries. Much like the Daredevils’ results curve, it is a sinusoidal waveform and representative of the inconsistencies in performance. At different points in time, the Daredevils' youth policy has worked, but in an individual capacity. It was Samson, Pant or Iyer standing up one at a time (Nair is yet to do something of note), and sporadically at that.
Imagine, what the Daredevils could have achieved with a consistent run from each of them, all at the same time. Imagine, what might have been?