On 10 October, Kings XI Punjab (KXIP) lost to Kolkata Knight Riders (KKR) by two runs – having required 22 from the last three overs with nine wickets in hand. It was their sixth defeat in seven games. A free-falling campaign was headed southwards.
Just over a fortnight and five games later, Kings XI Punjab are in the top-half of the IPL 2020 points table – having made it five wins in a row with a commanding display against Kolkata Knight Riders.
From the nadir of 10 October to today, they’ve made one obvious change, by bringing into the XI the most influential T20 cricketer of all-time. They’ve also made one more subtle change – almost more of a rearrangement than a change – in the make and shape of their bowling attack. And look how they’ve turned the IPL on its head, for themselves and the rest of the pack.
Let’s begin with the Universe Boss. Of course!
He couldn’t get a game. And given that the openers were the one properly functioning part of the KXIP setup, he appeared to be the eighth-choice overseas pick. This, in a season whose start coincided with his 41st birthday. No room for romance in T20 cricket, and in particular for reputations.
On 15 October, Chris Gayle got his first game of the season. On 15 October, Chris Gayle crossed 50 for the 105th time in his T20 career – but for the first time, it wasn’t as an opener.
Five games into his campaign, Gayle already has a second half-century. He’s played telling hands in three of these five KXIP wins (versus RCB, DC and now KKR).
There could have been concerns over Gayle’s preferred ‘settling-in’ approach to T20 batting in recent times, given that he was now due to bat at three, but look at how he’s handled that: he’s been as sure as we’ve seen him to start off, and is yet to have been dismissed inside the first 10 balls of an innings; what’s more noteworthy is a scoring rate of 8.88 runs per over in that same period – his second-fastest in any IPL campaign.
And look at how it has transformed the KXIP batting, which had shown itself as capable of losing from any situation when they last met the Knight Riders. On Monday, they were pointing towards a potentially tricky finish again, needing 95 off 62 balls. Gayle had just come out to bat, and had scored one run off three deliveries.
The next 14 balls went for 35 runs. Gayle’s contribution: 24 off eight balls. Six overs later, KXIP had added 92 runs in their last 50 balls. Gayle’s contribution: 50 off 25 balls.
They’d needed 28 from the last four overs with nine wickets in hand on that horror afternoon at Abu Dhabi. This time, they were left with 27 to get from the last four overs, again with nine wickets in hand – and the match didn’t even reach the final over.
A firing Gayle, an admittedly freed-up KL Rahul, and a soon-to-return Mayank Agarwal, plus the mad-man gears of Nicholas Pooran. If that’s not a scary top-four, nothing is. But batting hadn’t been a major issue during that stretch of defeats in the first half of the campaign.
It was the bowling that was completely out of sorts. Only two bowlers were leaking less than eight runs per over – Ravi Bishnoi, only just (7.85), and Arshdeep Singh (7.25). Sheldon Cottrell – the Rs 8.5 crore acquisition to bolster the bowling – had not paid off: six wickets from six games, at 8.80 runs per over. Chris Jordan, a Rs 3 crore purchase to shore up the death bowling, had gone wicketless in his first three appearances – conceding 135 runs in 11 overs. Both Cottrell and Jordan had been at the receiving end of one 30-run game-changing over each.
Now check out how things stand post the halfway mark of IPL 2020. No bowler has more wickets than Mohammed Shami’s 10 in this period. As of now, three of the top-five wicket-takers in the second half of the season are KXIP bowlers (Shami, Jordan, and Arshdeep). With a minimum of 15 overs bowled during this phase, only Rashid Khan and Lockie Ferguson have a better economy than Ravi Bishnoi’s 6.12.
The team’s economy has improved from 9.16 (the second-worst in the tournament) to 7.75; having conceded 30.72 runs for every wicket in the first half of the season, KXIP are now bagging their strikes at a league-leading average of 21.50.
Consistent performances, of course, have been key to the shift in fortunes: Shami and Jordan haven’t had any wicketless games in the second half; M Ashwin has conceded less than seven per over in three out of five games; Bishnoi has had an economy of six or lesser in three out of five games.
But a more defined set of roles is what’s aided the facelift from leaking to peaking.
Shami’s death overs economy has fallen from 14.10 to 9.14, and his already-impressive wicket-taking ability has only improved (six wickets in 42 balls between overs 16-20).
Jordan is a man reborn at the death: From 5-0-81-0, his end-overs figures have skydived – or sky-rocketed, perhaps – to 8-0-64-6 since the start of the second half. That’s a drop from 16.20 runs per over to eight.
With Arshdeep doing his bit with his array of cutters, KXIP have gone from being the worst death bowling outfit of IPL 2020 (13.3 runs per over) to the best (8.4).
During this turnaround, the trio of pacers have scalped 15 wickets from 113 balls between overs 16 to 20.
The pressure on opposing batsmen heading into the final stretch is necessitated by the grip the two lead spinners have had in the middle overs. In the last five games, the all-leggie 'Mash-Bish' combine has had an economy of 6.77 between overs 7 to 15, while also returning eight wickets in 26 overs.
Even Glenn Maxwell has more-than-efficiently done his bit, primarily in the powerplay and to best effect against left-hand-heavy teams. In a praiseworthy usage of match-ups, KXIP have landed themselves a quietly effective sixth-bowling option; Maxwell’s economy is down from 9.28 in the first half to 7.43 in the second – he’s also got rid of Rishabh Pant and Nitish Rana.
What all of this has done – the fantastic u-turn of the bowling stocks, and the fantastic return of T20 cricket’s most prolific batsman – is that a team sitting rock-bottom of the league at half-time finds itself as the form team of the competition heading into its business end.
Of course, there are still games to win against Rajasthan Royals on Friday and Chennai Super Kings on Sunday – KXIP will need to win at least one of those two – but as 17 days ago, who would’ve thought that Kings XI’s fortunes would rest in their own hands going into the final week of league-stage play?
They’ve turned the tide, they’ve made winning a habit. And if they entered the second half viewing every game as a final, Kings XI, five wins in five later, are probably setting their sights on five more ‘finals’. It’s crazy, but it’s for real.
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