The Rising Pune Supergiants closely resembled a patient on the hit TV show House MD. On Sunday, against Kings XI Punjab, the team seemed to be responding well to an initial dose of medication, involving three changes made to the playing XI. Despite losing an early wicket, they were chugging along nicely.
Then came the unexplained symptoms: Heamorraging of sweat and timing and losing a few more wickets, which caused the innings' blood pressure to drop sharply after 10 overs. The final 10 overs were then like a struggle between the patient's disease and efforts made by Dr House's team to identify it. There was no obvious diagnosis: Most batters who stuck around had healthy strike rates, and overseas players were working as well as healthy T-cells; they should have put up a rosy score. But, unlike the show, the batting then flatlined, scoring just three runs in their final over and allowing an opposition, which was on the mat, get their first points on the board.
A second consecutive loss should worry Rising Pune Supergiants captain MS Dhoni and coach Stephen Fleming. Not because of the loss itself, but because the manner in which it transpired; it was almost identical to their previous game.
On 14 April against Gujarat Lions in Rajkot, Pune batted first, lost Ajinkya Rahane early, then rebuilt through a partnership between Faf du Plessis and Kevin Pietersen. But they failed to find any thrust towards the end of the innings, and finished with a below par score. On Sunday at Mohali, that is almost exactly what happened again.
In both games, Pune scored well in the first 10 overs, but trailed off in the latter half — against Gujarat, after being 87 for one at the half-way point, Pune subsided to 163 for five in 20, scoring just 76 in 10 overs. Against Kings XI, Pune scored an identical 76 runs in the last 10 overs, this time for the loss of five wickets, after being 76 for two after the first 10. On good batting pitches, in an era where fifty runs in the last four overs is far from unheard of, not being able to accelerate is hurting Dhoni’s team.
Faf du Plessis, who top scored again with another half-century, must be wondering what more he needs to do to contribute to a Pune win. While he put on display an impressive panoply of shots, his strike rate in the second half of his innings dropped perceptibly. After 10 overs, he was on 36 off 26 balls, at a strike rate of 138.4. When he was dismissed, in the 20th over, he had bucked the trend of batters scoring faster the longer they bat. Off the last 27 balls he faced, he could score just 31 runs, bringing his overall strike rate down to 126.41.
The fact that this was an afternoon game, played with the mercury nudging 40 degrees, must be taken into account. Dhoni surprised everyone by opting to bat first after winning the toss, in a format which clearly points to an advantage to the side batting second. He also ignored history in the process: In the last nine games at Mohali, the team chasing had won. But he hedged his bets on his stronger suit, perhaps wanting to spare his bowlers the worst of the heat.
The decision meant that the brunt of the conditions were borne by the batters, and du Plessis in particular looked tired towards the end of the innings. It did not show in his running; the twos he and Steve Smith stole by bunting the ball to midwicket taunted the fielders in the deep more than House taunts Foreman. But it did show in their striking ability. On more than one occasion, balls that should have been sent to the boundary by someone with the class of du Plessis or Smith, found the fielder.
Fatigue affects not just a batsman's ability to run fast, but also his timing. A tired body has to work harder to keep its shape and keep still at the point of contact, and this might explain du Plessis’ poor strike rate at the end of the innings.
Another decision that Dhoni is likely to come under fire for is the promotion, or indeed the selection, of Thisara Perera. Sent in at number four, Dhoni most likely hoped he would play the kind of cameo that Mitchell McClennaghan did for Mumbai Indians against the Knight Riders. It made sense: Perera bats left-handed, and both KXIP spinners would bring the ball into him. Also, one side of the boundary at Mohali is considerably shorter than the other, and having a left-right combination would make it difficult for a bowling captain to protect the shorter side.
While the logic was sound, Perera's recent form in international cricket, with both bat and ball, might worry Supergiants fans. Given that Mitchell Marsh lost his place in the XI after one poor show, it will be interesting to see how patient Dhoni is with Perera.
Perera's ill-fated outing was just a microcosm of the Supergiants' day. With the ball in hand, he went for three consecutive boundaries off his first three balls, conceding 15 in that over. More tellingly, it was the 11th over, just after the halfway mark, and KXIP had been kept quiet. They were behind where the Supergiants had been at that stage in their innings. It was the same stage where the match had turned around.
Kings XI got home after a few hiccups, leaving Dhoni with many questions to ask of his vaunted top-order, and of himself as well, given the strange team composition and batting order. After two games where a poor start has been squandered, perhaps it is time we see India's best finisher bat higher.