On Saturday evening, there was a familiar sight at the Eden Gardens. No, it wasn’t rain that interrupts Indian Premier League matches frequently at Kolkata. It wasn’t Chris Gayle depositing sixes at will either, or the small matter of wearing the Orange Cap at the end of it all.
Instead, it pertains to some glorious hitting from where Gayle was watching. At the other end, KL Rahul laid into the Knight Riders’ attack, smashing 60 off just 27 balls. Some of his shots were simply awe-inducing. His second scoring shot was a controlled cut, almost a mark of precision in placing the ball past backward point, and taking advantage of a short third-man.
And then there was the pulled six over square leg, all timing and a little power too as Kolkata couldn’t surmise what hit them. Rahul brought up a 24-ball fifty to go with his 14-ball effort the other day and left everyone pondering. For, in just over two weeks of IPL, Rahul has been able to replicate the form that made him indispensable in the eyes of Indian skipper Virat Kohli.
When he is playing — and scoring — in such fashion, there is certain assuredness about Rahul. On such evidence, he looks one of the better Indian batsmen — only behind Kohli and Rohit Sharma in the limited-overs arena. In turn, of course, this begs the question about his place in the first-choice ODI and T20I teams. How do you fit him in, especially in the 50-over format with the 2019 World Cup looming?
This will be at the forefront of the many questions the Indian team management will ponder over at the end of this 2018 IPL season. Meanwhile, Kings XI Punjab need to think about a question themselves — are they too dependent on Gayle and Rahul, and their top-order to come good?
As they rounded up a third consecutive victory, it is an obvious conclusion to make. In these three games against Chennai Super Kings, Sunrisers Hyderabad and Kolkata Knight Riders, Gayle has scored 229 runs. Rahul has made 115. Between them, they have notched up three half-centuries and a hundred with the highest of 104 not out and 60 respectively. The next best score by a Punjab batsman is Karun Nair’s 31.
Clearly, there are cracks herein that have been sandpapered over by the sheer combination of Gayle’s demolishing act and Rahul’s brilliance. Even so, at least there is a consistency in the manner Punjab are keeping their batting order intact.
Whatever changes they do make herein adhere to circumstances and match situation. For example, while Aaron Finch has been held back, Mayank Agarwal is promoted up the order and given a free license. While Yuvraj Singh’s struggles have become clear, Nair has been moved ahead of him to carry on the momentum to the middle order.
IPL is a tournament wherein teams look for a quick start, and whilst doing so, they need to identify their best playing-eleven in the first half of the tournament. For someone like Chennai Super Kings or Mumbai Indians, who retain the cream of their players’ core, it is an easier job. But for a newly assembled team like Kings XI Punjab, it is a tough task.
In turn, this puts into perspective the ‘surprises’ skipper R Ashwin is willing to put out in every game. Let us count them one by one. In the first game against Delhi Daredevils, he deployed spin in the powerplay overs. In the second game against Royal Challengers Bangalore, he didn’t play Gayle. Against Chennai, Aaron Finch didn’t open again. Against Hyderabad, he opted to bat first, surprising everyone in world cricket.
If you notice, the occurrence of these surprises is dwindling as the tournament progresses, it is because Ashwin is now finding his feet in terms of player selection. Axar Patel is a firm case in point here. He is the only player retained by Punjab from 2017 before they hit the reset button. And yet he has only played two matches, sitting on the bench since the loss in Bengaluru.
The underlying point again is Ashwin — and the Punjab team management — have begun to find consistency in their team selection, and for their ‘newly assembled’ team, to be able to field an unchanged eleven in only their fifth game (against Hyderabad) was a remarkable feat. Until, that is, things changed again at the Eden Gardens on Saturday afternoon.
Mohit Sharma, who has been in tremendous form over the last couple matches, was benched. This is an Indian pacer who has controlled runs with the new ball, but his death bowling against a rampaging MS Dhoni (in the Chennai game) and Hyderabad cannot be easily forgotten. Yet, on a slower wicket, he was benched to include Ankit Rajpoot, a move that backfired as the Knight Riders took him for runs and scored 191/7. Rajpoot didn’t even complete his quota of overs.
At this juncture, you wonder about this change. What prompted it? Sure, the IPL is a long tournament and you need to handle resources carefully. Additionally, Punjab are currently playing three games in six days with a trip to Delhi pencilled in for Monday. Affording some rest to Sharma can be understood. But could it not have waited until the match-up against the Daredevils instead of the in-form Knight Riders? Was Rajpoot played just to keep Kolkata guessing, unless Sharma was carrying a niggle which wasn’t publicised?
In conclusion, experimentation is all but fine. Yet when it comes out only to keep the opponents guessing, it loses out in efficiency. Changes just for the heck of it can cost teams in the IPL, especially when you are staring at a tall chase for 192. Thankfully for Punjab, Gayle, Rahul and rain were around, in that order.