As the Kings XI Punjab squad prepared to head their separate ways at the end of their Indian Premier League (IPL) campaign, a definite sense of what could have been would have bound them together. That was laid bare during their comfortable win over Chennai Super Kings in their farewell game on Sunday evening.
The unshackled and unflappable manner in which opener KL Rahul destroyed Chennai Super Kings after his team’s bowlers had restricted the visitors to 170 for five, despite Faf du Plessis’ 96 and Suresh Raina’s half-century, was a delight that Kings XI Punjab had missed much of the season. Of course, he was bound by team demands to bat long rather than just entertain.
The authoritative victory over table toppers Chennai Super Kings came too late in the day to make a difference to the team’s fate, except propel themselves from the bottom of the table to the sixth place ahead of Rajasthan Royals and Royal Challengers Bangalore. They had lost five of the six previous games to be with only an outside chance of making it to the play-off stage.
Had they won their home game against either Royal Challengers Bangalore or Kolkata Knight Riders, Kings XI Punjab would have been making a fair run to be in the play-offs. But then how could a team that lost six away games in-a-row aspire to be among the top four? They would need to win a few games in different conditions to be counted as a more than merely dangerous floaters.
They had four wonderful performers who carried the team on their shoulders – opening batsmen KL Rahul (593 runs, second only to David Warner this season) and Chris Gayle (490 runs) as well as paceman Mohammed Shami (19 wickets) and skipper and off-spinner R Ashwin (15 wickets). But this quartet did not have too much support from the others.
Kings XI Punjab were hurt by the absence of an all-rounder who could win games with either his batting or bowling. Moises Henriques’ freak injury ahead of his first game against Rajasthan Royals left the team without much balance. Sam Curran was the closest who answered that description, but he had one knock of any significance and two bowling spells in his first season.
Yet, the best IPL teams make do with the resources available, preparing them to deliver to the best of their abilities. These sides boast of players who are deeply aware of game situations and can scrap long and hard to be able to win close games for them. Kings XI Punjab were left wishing for more players who could think on their feet.
One of the key reasons for Kings XI not living up to potential is the inability of the overseas bowlers to step up the plate. Of course, Sam Curran finished the league with 10 scalps from 9 matches but when you consider that he had a four-wicket haul, including a hat-trick against Delhi Capitals and claimed three wickets on Sunday evening, he was largely ineffective.
The larger disappointments were Australian seamer Andrew Tye and Afghanistan spinner Mujeeb ur Rahman who shone last year. It is possible that the team leadership build their plans around an attack with R Ashwin, Mohammed Shami and the two overseas stars. Neither of them was close to replicating the show from IPL 2018. Even spells on the reserves bench did not help either.
The South Africa-born Hardus Viljoen’s inability to adapt to the conditions meant that he played only a handful of games, making the Kings XI Punjab’s bowling cup of woes overflow as none of the overseas bowlers was able to make a telling contribution.
It is not as if it was just the overseas bowlers who disappointed the franchise. One of the biggest batting mainstays, David Miller was searching for form that saw him make 1637 runs in 69 games before this season. After he scored an unbeaten half-century at the Eden Gardens in Kolkata, the South African left-hander was unable to make an impression in many a game.
The home batsmen, barring KL Rahul, and to a lesser extent Mayank Agarwal, did not add muscle to the line-up. Mandeep Singh did not have a single half-century in 12 starts this season. To be fair, he remained unbeaten eight times but when the team needed him to fire in Delhi and against Kolkata Knight Riders in Mohali, he was unable to bat through the innings.
Sarfaraz Khan missed the last six games – and Kings XI Punjab did not make any reasons public for keeping him out of the XI – after scoring 180 runs in five innings. His last two innings were notable. Despite a half-century in Chennai, he was unable to guide the team over the line. And he gifted his wicket to Mohammed Siraj in the game against Royal Challengers Bangalore in Mohali.
To be sure, R Ashwin’s captaincy cannot escape scrutiny, especially since he is acknowledged as one of the keen readers of the game. Some of his decisions – including having rookie fastmedium bowler Arshdeep Singh send down more than one over during power-play – were baffling but there is no doubt that he tried pretty hard to lift the team up with his own bowling.
If the franchise owners decide to continue with the R Ashwin-Mike Hesson leadership combine next season, they will have to make a few changes, including perhaps find a replacement for Chris Gayle, who will be 40 by the time the next edition is held. And add a couple of all-rounders to the side. But then who can guarantee fitness and performance of every player picked by the franchise?