Ten days ago, Chennai Super Kings made a fascinating change to their batting line-up. Faf du Plessis walked out to open the innings with Shane Watson, as MS Dhoni decided to break the latter’s in-form pairing with Ambati Rayudu. It worked as Watson and Du Plessis provided flying starts against both Delhi Daredevils and Kolkata Knight Riders.
Why was this change necessary? Despite fast starts earlier in the season, Chennai were losing momentum in the middle order and at times it was forcing Dhoni’s hand to promote himself or other lower-order hard-hitting batsmen up the order to salvage the situation. Including Du Plessis meant an experienced batsman in the playing XI, while moving Rayudu down the order meant that an in-form batsman would provide continued momentum through the innings.
Even so, the timing of this change is more important than the reasoning. Dhoni is a seasoned T20 captain (bit of an understatement). He is well aware of the need to usher in the changes during the IPL’s league stage, rather than do so when it matters most in the knockouts. For then, it is all about using the tried and tested formula to get the job done. This is why he is also one of the more successful – and consistent – captains in IPL history.
It is a trick of the trade that Ravichandran Ashwin is yet to learn. When starting out on this new journey as IPL captain for the Kings XI Punjab, the off-spinner promised lots of surprises and he has delivered. From managing his bowling resources, to benching Chris Gayle and then bringing him back into the playing XI, from managing Yuvraj Singh’s poor form to moving around batsmen like Karun Nair to provide the right impetus to Punjab’s batting line-up, most of Ashwin’s moves have worked so far.
Yet, like with any cricket tournament (or in any sport for that matter), there comes a time in the IPL too when you need to settle down with your best available combination and use the same tested tricks to deliver consistent results. For Punjab, that time is now as they have shifted base from Mohali to Indore and are searching for momentum after a sizeable mid-season break. They started off well at home (read Indore) against Rajasthan Royals, but failed miserably in the return leg at Jaipur on Tuesday night.
Twelve points in nine games – that was Punjab’s situation before this return match against the Royals, and another two points would have seen them edge closer to the knockouts. It is a valuable proposition, particularly with all bottom-half teams still fighting hard to mathematically stay alive in the competition. Punjab though stayed put at 12 in 10 games, as Rajasthan rallied to another season-saving victory, thanks in large to needless experimentation both with bat and ball.
After Rajasthan won the toss and opted to bat, Punjab moved away from their tried and tested formula of bowling spin in the powerplay overs. By his own admission, skipper Ashwin had said that he ‘couldn’t make out how the pitch would play out, apart from that it might get tougher as the match progressed’. Starting with pace from both ends, it was easy to see that Jos Buttler was having an easy time scoring, and the lack of spin in the first six overs was all the more perplexing.
Having three spin options in the line-up has helped Punjab this season, in not only containing scoring during the powerplays but also mixing things up with pace in the middle overs. On Tuesday, Axar Patel didn’t complete his quota of overs, neither did Mohit Sharma even as Ashwin himself proved to be slightly more expensive. Their most economical pacer Marcus Stoinis too only bowled two overs.
Ultimately, it came down to the efforts of Andrew Tye (4-34) and their spin ‘stalwart’ Mujeed Ur Rahman that Punjab finished with a probable 159-run target. Even at this stage, the damage done could be rectified. This T20 format allows captains more leverage with the ball than with the bat, and so far these unnecessary changes could have been quantified. What came next though was surprising, and not very effective.
No, Gayle falling cheaply for the second match running wasn’t the talking point. Instead, it was the sight of Ashwin himself walking out at number three. This was utterly inexplicable. When Mayank Agarwal was dropped from the playing XI on Tuesday, it was a general assumption that in-form Nair would be moved up the order. Agarwal’s replacement Akshdeep Nath would have sufficed as a direct replacement, or an all-rounder like Stoinis for that matter, even Manoj Tiwary. The underlying point is that any batsman in their batting line-up would have made for a good replacement choice at number three, any other than Ashwin.
“It was something that we had thought of doing in the previous game as well. The idea was to go out and just hit the ball, and see what happens,” said Ashwin, explaining this perplexing move after the loss.
If he had come out to provide stability to the batting order at three, and stay with KL Rahul who was anchoring the innings all by himself, this move could have still made sense. But Ashwin, for all his courage as a batsman, doesn’t fit the bill of a pinch hitter at all. And it showed in his half-hearted slog against Krishnappa Gowtham – a sizzling off-spinner that cut into the batsman and crashed into his stumps. It was a fiery ball, and there was so much gap between bat and pad that a fire-truck could have driver through let alone a cricket ball.
With Ashwin's wicket, 14/1 became 14/2. When Nair fell, it was 19/3 in the first four overs of the powerplay – there was no coming back from this, even by Punjab’s high-scoring standards. More importantly, it was all for nothing. Slogging, and leaving gaps between bat and pad, is not what Ashwin the batsman is known for. There is a school of thought that this move was inspired perhaps by Gowtham’s own promotion in the batting order earlier, a surprising and innovative move from Rajasthan Royals, albeit it didn’t work out either.
There is a difference between Royals and Punjab. The former are struggling for survival and need to mix things up. There is no such need for Punjab, who have looked good to qualify for the knockouts easily and maybe even challenge for the trophy this season. Mindless experimentation at this vital stage of the season will only mess this up when the need of this hour is consistency. Maybe, the Punjab captain should remember that the next time he thinks of promoting himself as pinch-hitter.