Ever heard of the phrase ‘no smoke without fire’? How about ‘no rain without clouds’? Surely, you have heard this – ‘There is only one constant, causality, action, reaction, cause and effect’? After all, everyone has seen The Matrix and remember Neo’s intriguing conversation with The Merovingian.
As the stylish French villain put it, this is the only universal truth, and so it applies to the field of cricket as well. ‘No smoke without fire’ is the perfect way to describe the Kings XI Punjab camp this past week after reports emerged of a rift between co-owner Preity Zinta and team mentor Virender Sehwag. That the franchise put out a statement against those reports can only be seen as a near-confirmation of the said event.
Some people might argue that the last sentence is an assumption. Possibly, for that is how it reads. Yet, the thumb rule of Indian cricket – or anything related to it – is to not offer any explanation, full stop. Whether it is regarding ambiguity in team selection during a high profile overseas Test series, or about administrative matters pertaining to the sport, or even why over rates are not being monitored in this 2018 season of the Indian Premier League, well, there is no explanation. None! That the Punjab camp moved to quash those reports only makes for a standout moment, and perhaps they should have left it alone.
Then, there is ‘cause and effect’, and the veracity of this Merovingian statement could be ascertained in Punjab’s high-profile clash with Kolkata Knight Riders on Saturday afternoon. From the beginning till the end, as they went on to lose a game of carnage by 31 runs, it seemed as if Punjab were playing to a set plan, one without any untowardly surprising moments.
Opting to bowl on a flat track – no surprise. Regular team selection with Mayank Agarwal coming back at the cost of Akshdeep Nath – no surprise. Using spin to open the bowling – no surprise. Holding spinners back for middle and death overs – no surprise. Following the batting order to the point of certainty – no surprise. In fact, that there were no surprises in this Kings XI Punjab outing was the surprising element of the afternoon.
It only pointed to the fact that there were clouds of disagreement in the previous week that led to a rainy conversation or two behind closed doors. Let it be said here that for the first time this season, it seemed that skipper Ravichandran Ashwin didn’t have a new trick up his sleeve. Or, was it simply the case that plans had already been drawn up and he was simply handed the to-do list. One school of thought here is that this was the optimal thing to do, given how Punjab’s momentum after their mid-season break has been severely punctured.
So much so, that they are now only two points above Mumbai Indians, who are on a rampaging run in a bid to make the knockouts. Before their loss to Sunrisers Hyderabad, Punjab were flying high and were within touching distance of the top-spot in the points’ table. Now, they are in probable risk of losing out in the race of finishing top four. That is a steep fall in franchise cricket, particularly for Punjab who are hungry for the ultimate success, and why Zinta has cause to lose her cool.
On Saturday then, Ashwin had cause to lose his cool as well. On a splendid batting track, bounded by a small boundary, his pacers didn’t perform to the optimal level. Time and again, Barinder Sran and Mohit Sharma were guilty of dropping it short or bowling within the arc of the batsmen. In particular, their spells against Sunil Narine were particularly poor, for Ashwin didn’t have the luxury of bowling spin to the ‘makeshift’ opener.
Mujeeb Ur Rahman injuring his hand didn’t help either, as he is Punjab’s main weapon. The 17-year-old is clearly their go-to guy when it comes to controlling the scoring rate, and the fact that even he couldn’t put on the brakes on a rampaging Kolkata batting line-up proved that three spinners was perhaps not the way to go. Could Punjab have found a way to include Marcus Stoinis in the playing eleven, for he is a reliable, controlling bowler in this format?
That point is rendered moot when faced with a 246-run target, the highest in the 2018 IPL thus far. From there onwards, it was all about Chris Gayle and KL Rahul working their magic. Kolkata had done their homework on Gayle – as soon as he attacked Narine, they brought on the pacers who bowled quick and short, cramping him for room repeatedly and resulting in an edge that Dinesh Karthik finally latched on to.
Rahul, then, was left standing for the lone fight. He is in the form of his life, and his run-scoring spree is of the same hues as the Kolkata jersey – deep purple. But we have seen time and again that a lone batsman cannot win a tournament like the IPL all on his own. Remember when Virat Kohli scored 900-odd runs in one season and Royal Challengers Bangalore still couldn’t get their hands on the trophy?
In this momentum-sapping run, perhaps the biggest cause of worry for Punjab is the loss of form of their main batsmen. Gayle may be firing but can he be trusted to score in every game remaining? Mayank Agarwal and Karun Nair are mired in inconsistency, Yuvraj Singh is woefully out of touch, Aaron Finch is playing out of position and David Miller cannot even make it to the playing eleven.
Bottomline is that Punjab have a lot to worry about and for good cause.