The IPL opening ceremony happened on Friday. The opening matches on Saturday and Sunday were tedious, uncompetitive affairs. It wasn’t until Monday night at the IS Bindra Stadium in Mohali that we had our first glimpse of a contest, but even this ended up becoming a stroll in the park.
Kings XI Punjab, who finished bottom of the table last year, took on the Gujarat Lions, a new team which is basically 70 per cent of the Chennai Super Kings in a different kit. There was Ravi Jadeja bowling medium-paced spin, there was Dwayne Bravo bowling slower balls, there was CSK stalwart Suresh Raina. The home side had been in existence for nine years more than the Gujarat Lions, and have a core nucleus that has been together for several years. And were playing at home on Monday night. But were still the underdogs in this game.
Kings XI batted first and made it to 161-6, a decent score, but not a daunting one when you consider that the Lions top three had Brendon McCullum, Suresh Raina and Aaron Finch, the batsman with the most T20 international runs ever, the highest run-getter in IPL history and the record holder for the highest score in T20 internationals, respectively. A decent score is fine, but it didn't look like being match-winning.
All the talk before this match was about the big-hitting prowess of Glenn Maxwell and David Miller, about how the duo hold the the key for the home side. Few expected India's Test match opener to play the first really significant innings of IPL 9 for KXIP, but it was Murali Vijay's 42 from 34 balls that got them going. Facing Praveen Kumar and Pradeep Sangwan, who got good swing movement with the new ball, it was a slow first few overs, but it did not take him long to get going. A pull for six off Sangwan was a bit of a slog, but it was "proper" cricketing shots for the orthodox Murali Vijay from there on.
With Manan Vohra, Vijay put on an opening stand of 78 runs, already better than any first-wicket partnership the KXIP managed the whole of last season. There was hope, there was real belief that it would be a winning start. It did not last.
Dwayne Bravo came into the attack. Fresh from creating a dance craze (and winning the World T20) Bravo claimed 4-22, becoming the first man with 300 T20 wickets in the process. Plucky underdogs KXIP went from 91-1 to 102-4. That good start given to them by an excellent opening stand had been wasted as both Maxwell and Miller failed.
Marcus Stoinis made his IPL debut and the Australian all-rounder did a great rescue job. His movie-star good looks and sleek hair should have been enough to get him selected, but he actually batted quite well. Looking just like Judd Nelson in the Breakfast Club, but more moody and mysterious, Stoinis made an excellent 33 from just 22 balls. It was his busy running and invented strokes that got Kings XI to that decent total, but even the piercing eyes of Stoinis was not enough to save his team.
They started brilliantly with the ball when Sandeep Sharma had McCullum dismissed for a duck in the first over. But from there on, it was the Aaron Finch show. He fell for 74 in the 12th over but he had already ended Kings XI's chances by that stage. If this Gujarat line-up has a weakness, it is that once the top three are gone the batting looks a bit light. Jadeja at five is at least one place too high in T20 cricket.
But Finch's innings meant that even once he was gone and the middle-order was exposed, there was no pressure to push on with the run-rate.
The Lions stumbled a bit in their pursuit of the target, but they were never really in trouble, getting home with 14 balls to spare. For Kings XI, there were far more questions than answers after this first game. Mitchell Johnson looks rusty and wasn't really getting the ball through at the terrifying pace that he is capable of. In fact, Dinesh Karthik was able to charge down the track and crash Johnson over extra cover for four.
Mohit Sharma, playing his first game of cricket in 2016, looked just as short of match practice. Without either of those men looking particularly potent it is difficult to work out where wickets are going to come from.
Vohra and Vijay gave KXIP a good start, but when they fell in quick succession it showed how reliant the team will be on their overseas middle-order batsmen. With Miller and Maxwell not making a big score, the innings lost impetus — and even the excellent batting of Stoinis could not reinject the intent that they had shown in the early overs.
2015 was a terrible year for the Kings XI Punjab, a really awful season full of uninspiring displays. 2016 has started with a performance that was so insipid that you could almost see the television sets turning off during the match.
Their next match is against the Delhi Daredevils. If there is one team that can get KXIP out of this funk, it is the other perennial IPL underachievers. Or they could just both be really terrible.