If there was a team that grossly underperformed in the Indian Premier League (IPL) last year, it was Rising Pune Supergiant. The Sanjeev Goenka-owned franchise which debuted in the league following the suspension of Chennai Super Kings and Rajasthan Royals in the wake of the 2013 spot-fixing scandal, may not have had a storied past, but boasted of a really formidable line-up, at least on paper.
They hit the ground running in the draft, bagging the services of the inimitable Mahendra Singh Dhoni, the ever-reliable Ajinkya Rahane, the classy Steve Smith, the wily Faf du Plessis and the crafty Ravichandran Ashwin. In the main auction, they went ahead and added Mitchell Marsh, Kevin Pietersen, Thisara Perera and Ishant Sharma among others.
True to their promise, Pune started with a bang, dismissing the then defending champions Mumbai Indians' challenge in their opening match. But soon their wheels started to come off. They lost four of their top players – Pietersen, Du Plessis, Marsh and Smith – midway through the campaign and Ashwin's poor form didn't help either, who could take only 10 wickets in 14 matches, conceding nearly 32 runs for every wicket taken. Consequently, after a string of adverse results, they ended up second last on the points table.
They would have had to contend with the disadvantage of entering the fray late, and their team gave the look similar to that of Kolkata Knight Riders (KKR) in the first few seasons – a few big names and a lot of second string Indian performers. The team clearly lacked balance. There was always the risk of a debacle if the top stars didn't fire, and that's what happened.
What then would be Pune's strategy going into the IPL auctions this year? They have retained 16 players, including five overseas players and have Rs 17.5 crore remaining in the purse to spend. Pune can now add 10 players to their side, having bought Mayank Agarwal from Delhi Daredevils in the transfer window, and four of the 10 players can be foreigners. There may also be the option to buy back a specific number of players they had released with the right-to-match available. It allows a franchise to buy back a player they had released if they match the highest bid for that player.
Pietersen had made it clear that he would not be a part of the IPL auctions this year citing a hectic schedule in the past few months. One feels they should have retained Ishant. Clearly, Rajat Bhatia, Ishwar Pandey, Jaskaran Singh, Ankit Sharma, Deepak Chahar, Baba Aparajith, Ashok Dinda and Ankush Bains aren't players who can, largely by themselves, win you an IPL. Buying back Ishant now may not be all that easy, even if the right-to-match option is available, especially with the pacer listing himself at the highest base price of Rs 2 crore, and considering that there could be a tug of war between the franchises over the lanky pacer. Pune, therefore, clearly missed a trick here.
Although the services of Smith, Marsh, du Plessis and Dhoni will be available in the middle-order, Pune need to significantly bolster their side with quality in almost every other position. The problem is, the places are limited. Goenka's franchise, therefore, need to be spot on with their buying.
An opener to partner Rahane at the top of the order is what they badly require. Jason Roy of England, who had been in fine form in the recently-concluded limited overs against India, could be a distinct target for Pune. With scores of 73, 82 and 65 in the ODIs and 61 runs in three T20Is against India, he had impressed one and all. Roy has a reserve price of Rs 1 crore and there is expected to be some animated bidding over the England opener. Martin Guptill at a reserve price of Rs 50 lakh could be the other opener that Pune would target.
The middle-order is more or less settled with Smith, Marsh, Dhoni, Usman Khawaja and Du Plessis, but they may just want to consolidate the line-up with a couple of Indian batsmen in the form of Manoj Tiwary, Unmukt Chand, Prithvi Shaw or Aditya Tare. They need to make their purchases wisely. Their choices have to be precise for specific roles in the side given that they don't have the luxury, unlike KKR, to make a huge number of purchases.
Pune may be tempted to go after Eoin Morgan, the swashbuckling England captain, especially after his performances in the Big Bash League, the limited-overs series against India and the Pakistan Super League (PSL). They may also look at Marlon Samuels of the West Indies. However, rather than going after a specialist overseas batsman in the middle order, where they already have a fair amount of firepower, it may be more judicious to opt for an all-rounder. Plus, talking specifically of Morgan, he would be an expensive buy, having listed his base price at Rs 2 crore and with some competition expected over him.
There are a quite a few top overseas all-rounders that they can target, who can importantly also fill in the void in the pace-bowling ranks. The names of Ben Stokes, Corey Anderson, Angelo Mathews, David Wiese, Colin Munro, Farhan Behardien, Thisara Perera and Jason Holder can be discussed by the think-tank. Pune may also look at Kane Richardson, Trent Boult, Nathan Coulter-Nile, John Hastings, Mitchell Johnson, Chris Jordan and Kyle Abott, released by the various franchises as specialist pacers. Australians Pat Cummins and Ben Dwarshuis, South Africa's Kagiso Rabada and England's Tymal Mills could also be looked at to add muscle in the pace-bowling department. The Pune franchise may also want to buy a couple of Indians speedsters in the form of Rishi Dhawan, Nathu Singh or Varun Aaron.
They would also need at least a couple of quality specialist spinners in the side to support Ashwin and Adam Zampa and one expects them to go after Imran Tahir, Mitchell Santner and Brad Hogg. Tahir is the number one-ranked bowler in the ICC's list of T20I bowlers and Santner, if one remembers had decimated India in their opening match of the World T20 last year in Nagpur with figures of 4/11. The evergreen Hogg, on the other hand, has played with distinction for a very long time. Pune may want to recruit off-break bowler Karn Sharma as a back-up, to add to the young spinners who they already have in the form of Baba Aparajith and Ankit Sharma. If they opt for Marlon Samuels, he can bowl a few overs of off-break as well.
The auctions on 20 February, therefore, are going to be a bit tricky for Pune. They have released players they shouldn't have, while retaining those whom they could have released. The squad that they have now clearly is not a well-balanced one. Depending too much on a Dhoni or a Smith or an Ashwin can be counter-productive. The franchise would have to set that in order if they are to be a contender for the title. How they go about doing it will be interesting to see.