It turned out to be a damp end to Delhi Capitals' fairy-tale season as they bowed down to Chennai Super Kings (CSK) as for the third time in the 2019 edition of Indian Premier League (IPL).
On Friday night, the men in the blue jerseys entered the second Qualifier, aiming to be the party-spoiler in a highly-anticipated Mumbai-Chennai finale. They had the form and momentum in their favour, but eventually, it counted for nothing for Delhi in front of CSK's experience as MS Dhoni's men completely outclassed them at Visakhapatnam without much fuss.
Barring a one-sided fixture or two, it turned out to be a pretty satisfactory IPL 12 for Delhi in the end. The franchise went through a complete structural revamp prior to this season, which included changes in ownership, logo, jersey, players, support staff as well as the team name. And with the "Devils" gone, Delhi finally found redemption this time around with a third-place finish, which is by far their best performance in the IPL since 2012.
Investing in a young core group has been the key to Delhi's success. A team that was built on the wreckage left behind after the last few seasons finally started banking heavily on young talents such as Rishabh Pant, Shreyas Iyer and Prithvi Shaw. And it all started last year when they made Iyer the skipper in the middle of the season in place of Gautam Gambhir. The presence of Ricky Ponting in their think-tank triggered a call this bold, and with Sourav Ganguly coming in as a mentor this year, there has been more clarity and transparency in their decision making. As a result, the team made the most out of its limited resources.
The plan was simple. The think-tank wanted to build a team for the future. So, they identified the talent, picked the right players in the auction and wholeheartedly backed them. As a beneficiary of this policy, we can talk about Shaw who opened the innings throughout the season in spite of his up-and-down form.
Also, the trading of local boy Shikhar Dhawan from down south has paid dividends as the left-hander ends the season as the team's highest run-scorer with a tally of 521 runs, including five half-centuries. He provided the experience and solidity at the top whereas others capitalised on the starts Dhawan gave on most occasions.
Initially it took a few games for Dhawan to get into his groove. He got runs, but with a strike-rate that was below par by his standards. But the left-hander broke the shackles at Eden Gardens with an unbeaten 97 — hit best T20 score, and later collected three consecutive half-centuries against Kings XI Punjab, Rajasthan Royals and Royal Challengers Bangalore respectively.
Interestingly, from the batting point of view, unlike some of the other high-profile franchises in the IPL, Delhi opted for almost an Indian core-group, one that revolved around the Gen Next of Indian cricket — Pant, Shaw and Iyer, with Dhawan being the only senior player. And the strategy did work for them as throughout the season these players kept producing match-winning performances.
It all started from the season opener against Mumbai, when Pant unleashed himself at Wankhede with a 27-ball 78. At that point, he was also in contention for India's World Cup and the Delhi management gave him a go in the middle-order to strengthen his claim.
However, as the tournament went by, Pant faced issues regaining his consistency. He was getting those odd impact knocks, but in between there were too many occasions in which he wasted starts trying to be unnecessarily flamboyant. On multiple games, Pant was guilty of not finishing matches, a responsibility that was expected of him as a designated finisher in the side. And perhaps that factor went against him when it came to his non-selection in the World Cup-bound squad, despite the southpaw scoring 488 runs this season with an impressive strike-rate of 162.66.
Meanwhile, the way Iyer batted, especially on the spin-friendly Kotla wicket during their home games, has been a huge positive for Indian cricket in IPL 2019. Following the epic collapse at Mohali, where Delhi lost seven wickets for eight runs during their chase of the 169-run target, the skipper took the responsibility upon himself to anchor the innings. He looked unfazed under pressure and delivered when it mattered. He scored half-centuries on three occasions this season (against SRH, KXIP and RCB) and each time his team went on to win the match. Perhaps, the only disappointment of Iyer's 463-run IPL season was his failure in each of the two Playoff games.
Nevertheless, the consistency of their top-order helped Delhi immensely in turning the results in their favour. However, there has been a little bit of vulnerability in the middle. For instance, batting at No 6 is perhaps one spot higher for someone like Axar Patel. Also, Windies all-rounder Sherfane Rutherford is not a finished product yet. So, at this point in his career, no one should expect him to do an "Andre Russell" every time he comes to the crease. Also, the two Colins — Ingram and Munro, haven't lived up to their potential either.
Hopefully, the think-tank will address these issues come 2020. Perhaps, as an overseas all-rounder, they would like a more established name from international arena — someone like Glenn Maxwell or Mahmudullah Riyad of Bangladesh. These experienced players can fit into this Delhi batting line-up as finishers down the order, and their handy spin-bowling skills can be ideal for the slow-low Kotla surface.
Delhi's bowling was led by Kagiso Rabada this season with 25 wickets in 12 matches at an average of 14.72, including two four-wicket hauls. In fact, he has been the best bowler by a distance in this year's IPL as despite playing four matches less than his nearest competitor Imran Tahir, the pacer was the highest wicket-taker in the competition at the time of Delhi's campaign coming to a close.
Let's not forget that on most occasions, he bowled on slow Kotla surface, which hardly offered any assistance to the fast bowlers. With the new ball and in the death overs, the South African was exceptional was his lengths, variations and accuracy. And the 'Super Over' he bowled against Kolkata to defend 10 against the likes of Russell and Dinesh Karthik has been one of the highlights of this season.
Unfortunately, at the business end of this IPL, the pacer had to go back to his country due to a suspected back-injury. Though others like Trent Boult, Keemo Paul, Chris Morris and Ishant Sharma did a decent back-up job, Rabada's departure had a huge impact on Delhi's chances in the business end of the tournament, especially when it came to death bowling. In his absence, Ishant and company started brilliantly with the new ball but failed to maintain the pressure at the back-end of the innings in some of the games.
In the spin-department, Axar and Amit Mishra were their preferred options and both backed-up the efforts of the pacers by keeping it tight in the middle-overs as well getting the important breakthroughs. The two spinners maintained an economy rate of less than eight this season (6.75 and 7.13 respectively), which in this era of fierce power-hitting can be considered an incredible feat. However, they perhaps missed a trick by not fully utilising the potential of young leg-spinner Sandeep Lamichhane, especially in the home games.
With the average age of the entire team much lesser compared to the other seven franchises, this Delhi Capitals squad has immense potential. And the cherry on the top is the inspirational leadership of the 24-year old captain, under whom the team emerged victors in nine of their 16 matches this year. Iyer showed maturity in handling this relatively inexperienced team both on and off the field and hardly looked rattled when things were not going his way.
Going forward, this team is bound to grow in stature. The spark has already been ignited.