At the halfway stage of their game against Delhi Daredevils, the 144-run target set by Kings XI Punjab made for some pondering. In their second match of the season, Kings XI Punjab had been bowled out for 155 against Royal Challengers Bangalore. But for AB de Villiers’ genius, they nearly defended that score. Could they do it again?
At 42/3 in the sixth over, the Daredevils had provided an emphatic answer to that question. There aren’t many teams in the Indian Premier League (IPL) capable of messing up a sub-150 chase. Even if devoid of any historical significance, Delhi is one such batting unit, considering their lack of momentum and confidence.
Ravichandran Ashwin was again on the mark with his captaincy. If spin led the way in their first game against the Daredevils, he opted for pace this time around, for the dual nature of this Ferozshah Kotla wicket warranted that change in plans. Of course, spin was going to be the focal point of Punjab’s defence as it played out later in the innings. Blow them away with pace initially, and strangle them with spin later was Ashwin’s motto on this Monday evening.
Isn’t it marvellous when the captain’s well laid-out plans tick like clockwork? Ankit Rajpoot had taken some beating in the game against Kolkata Knight Riders. There were question marks as to why he was playing ahead of Mohit Sharma. Despite that performance at the Eden Gardens, Rajpoot was persisted with, perhaps because of the nature of the opposition. The pacer showed at the Kotla why such confidence in him was not misplaced as he blew away the Daredevils’ top order.
“We were wondering what to bowl in the 19th over, because I had made up my mind to bowl Mujeeb (Ur Rahman) in the last over,” said Ashwin in the post-match conference.
That word ‘confidence’ is the key herein. It resonates in the skipper’s thinking at every step, irrespective of whether it is the right decision or not. Akin to playing Rajpoot at the Eden, you could question why Barinder Sran was chosen to bowl the vital penultimate over when Shreyas Iyer was taking him for runs.
A little diligence will say that Ashwin had hamstrung himself, for Mujeeb’s last over was the only other possible option. When the skipper says that he was undecided what to bowl – while holding back Mujeeb for the final over – you wonder aloud if Yuvraj Singh was the ‘surprise’ option that he was gunning for. Make no mistake, this was perhaps the first match of this IPL season in which Ashwin didn’t really spring his promised ‘surprise’.
With Chris Gayle out, Aaron Finch moved up to open the batting. David Miller was included in the playing XI. Both obvious calls from any vantage point, and the manner he went about formulating plans for Delhi’s innings can be classified under strategy. Yuvraj didn’t even bowl. Where was the surprising element then? Or in stringing together five out of six wins so far, have Kings XI Punjab hit upon their perfect formula already (needing only minor chopping and changing as they go ahead)?
Put that name – Yuvraj – under the scanner and the answer for that latter question is a vehement no. At some point, they will need more than just chop and change, and it won’t be easy.
Sample this. In their last three matches, Punjab racked up 190-plus scores against Chennai Super Kings, Sunrisers Hyderabad and Kolkata Knight Riders. Gayle’s contributions in those games don’t really need a second mention. Yet, the first game he goes missing (lack of fitness) and Punjab struggled to make a quick start. Are they too dependent on Gayle and KL Rahul?
The answer is yes. Of course, who wouldn’t be dependent on two attacking openers who have strung together a fine partnership? The question to ask here though is if the Punjab team management has identified this problem pre-emptively and done something to resolve the situation. The answer then becomes partly yes, and partly no.
Against Chennai, when Gayle got out at 127/2 in the 12th over, Yuvraj walked out to bat. MS Dhoni was then able to suck out all momentum from their innings and restrict Punjab to only 197/7 after 20 overs. In the very next game against Hyderabad, with the score reading 83/2 in the 11th over, Karun Nair came out to bat at No 4. This ploy hasn’t changed in three matches running thereafter, signalling that Punjab brought about this change because Nair can connect the top-order momentum with that of the middle order.
In turn, it focuses the spotlight on Yuvraj even more. In the first game of this 2018 season, he batted at No 3 against the Daredevils. For the next two matches, he came out to bat at No 4. Since then, he has batted lower in the order. Yuvraj’s return this season is a pitiable 50 runs in four innings (six matches) at average of 12.50 and strike-rate of 89.29. His highest score is 20 off 13 against Chennai. This is not good enough for someone of his star value, let alone for a 36-year-old trying to make one last comeback to the Indian team.
From the very beginning, Yuvraj’s timing has looked off. Match after match, he is struggling to time his shots, whether against pace or spin. If you watch him bat, it is easily discernable that he is taking an extra second to gauge what the bowler (or ball) is trying to do and thus getting beaten for pace or turn. That happens with age. That also happens when a batsman is closer to retirement instead of an international comeback.
Out there in the middle, the struggle has become very real for Yuvraj. What he does with the ball or in the field doesn’t matter because runs alone will decide what his immediate future is. And the runs aren’t coming. Even so, no one is asking the tough question just yet. There is no talk of dropping him from the Punjab XI because winning momentum matters more. Even in a tough, low-scoring win against Delhi, this question won’t bubble to the top because two points are all that matter at this stage.
At some stage though, this question will surface, maybe closer to the knockout stage or when Punjab encounter a barren run from their top-heavy batting order. And the answer will be painful not only for Yuvraj, but for all those who have cheered for him over the past decade or so.