If this was an end-of-the-year report card, it would have been the sort which a student would try and lose on his way home. In a strict household, he'd even fear severe loss of liberty, or chastisement. But while it is definitely a fail mark for Delhi Daredevils as we review their performance in IPL 2016, it's not as simple as blaming the pupil for lack of effort, attention or application. This is an occasion when the schoolteacher would need to look into the support one received from the parents.
The Daredevils' final game of the tournament was a microcosm of their season as a whole, and in Royal Challengers Bangalore, they faced their antithesis.
A lot is said about momentum in sport. Too much, possibly, and certainly too much emanated from the commentary box on Sunday night — as the commentators quibbled over its relative importance, before agreeing it was desirable. Sports watchers usually disagree about what momentum actually is. Is it a run of wins? Is it a period of superiority within a match? Is it an overall upward curve that can absorb both defeats and spells of inferiority in a game?
But for all the over-emphasis placed upon it, and rubbish talked about it, it is basically confidence — and the armchair viewer will tell you that they know it when they see it. And you could see it bucket-loads in Virat Kohli's Royal Challengers Bangalore, while it was a notable by its absence from Zaheer Khan's Daredevils.
At the half way stage of this year's competition, it was entirely the other way around: After seven games, Delhi had five wins and two losses; Bangalore had two wins and five defeats. In the second half, Delhi won two and lost five; Bangalore won six out of seven. From a position of weakness, RCB backed their players, began believing in themselves, and played positive, attacking cricket with flair and determination. The Daredevils, with wins under their belt and only needing six points from a possible 14, squandered their chance, frittered away their advantage, and now go home with their tails between their legs.
So where do they look for answers? What were the reasons for their fall from grace? What solutions can they identify so we don't see a repeat performance in 2017? Traditionally, one looks to the players. Were they good enough? Were they motivated? Did they play to their potential?
Personally, if I were the owner of the franchise, I would be directing all of these questions at their management team — and I doubt very much that I would be satisfied with their answers. I would be pointing my accusing finger directly at them. I would want to know who was in charge — and I would sack them.
The Delhi Daredevils demonstrated in the first half of the season that they had promise, talent, skill — and enough impact players to make the important difference in key match situations if used wisely. But in part two of the season, they seemed to lose interest, keenness and focus, and they drifted away. It was like watching one of the brightest pupils drop out of school through boredom. As I said earlier, I'd want to talk to the parents — in this case Paddy Upton, Rahul Dravid and Zaheer Khan — for it is they who must shoulder the blame for the disastrous collapse of the Daredevils' campaign.
First off, I'd want to know who was responsible for the batting order. It became ridiculous to hear fans and pundits repeatedly puzzle over why Chris Morris, one of the IPL's most destructive forces, was batting so low? In their final game, unbelievably, he batted at number eight. He only had seven innings across the tournament — was left stranded, undefeated in four of those — and yet averaged 65 with a colossal strike-rate of 178. There were murmurs he was vulnerable to spin, which he disproved with two delicate reverse sweeps against RCB. Whoever placed such a phenomenal resource so far out of reach was manifesting signs of madness. It was like placing your salt or sugar in the deepest, darkest, furthest recesses of your pantry.
Much the same was true about JP Duminy as well: Batted too low in the order, and was under-utilised as a useful slow-bowling option — getting a go in only half of the games in which he featured. But at least he had ten outings — World T20 winner Carlos Brathwaite was only reckoned good enough for eight!
This was the Daredevils problem: They were bogged down by their obsession about playing a side that would reflect the conditions. That is reasonable logic, but only if you can confidently read the pitch. How many times have you seen players, coaches and commentators predict one thing, only to witness another? And in fixating on this one approach, Daredevils sacrificed continuity, and were unable to identify an overall strategy or consistent team tactic. Zaheer Khan was left floundering, having to react to changing game situations from match to match without ever knowing what the game-plan was — because they never developed one. Take a look at the Gujarat Lions or the Sunrisers, or RCB: At most times, close observers of the IPL will know what the options are for their relative skippers in differing situations, and how they might react. Zaheer Khan never had that luxury, because he was always dealt a dodgy hand — full of jokers, but no trumps.
The same can be said of other areas as well: Quinton de Kock's opening partner was chopped and changed too often — and in consequence, the side's best batsman was put under undue pressure to personally perform, rather than having the full freedom to express himself. And in putting too great an emphasis on abstract ideas, they neglected obvious areas like running between the wickets. They didn't make the best use of the experience in their squad, didn't take the field with a consistent, settled side, and never identified their own best combination. They spent an unhealthy amount of time over-thinking things.
The Daredevils promised so much, and ultimately delivered too little. They have so many areas for improvement that if they get them right one can actually see them winning the IPL next year. But I would suggest they first need to identify what was the disruptive element within the management set-up, and get rid of it quickly.