When it comes to T20 cricket, Kevin Pietersen is a brilliant commentator. It is not to say that his words don’t hold weight for the other two formats, no. Even so, his understanding of the shortest format is simply marvellous, and it stands to good reason. This is after all the cricketer who changed English cricket’s outlook regarding T20s and pushed them to take white-ball cricket more seriously.
On Saturday night then, Pietersen was on air when Ambati Rayudu was at the crease. Chennai Super Kings (CSK) were chasing 170 to win — it was not an impossible target, but with each passing delivery, it became more improbable. You see, Rayudu and his partner, N Jagadeesan, lacked any sort of urgency during their 64-run partnership. This third-wicket pairing came together at 25-2, faced 52 deliveries together and yet Chennai were never closer to achieving the target.
You can forgive Jagadeesan for a moment. The 24-year-old made his IPL debut on the day and went out fighting with a 28-ball 33-run knock. Sure, his strike-rate could have been better than 117.86 but credit where it’s due. He was facing a Bangalore attack that had its tail up and the pressure was mounting. What more do you expect of a debutant than to hold one end up? Atleast he did no worse than Kedar Jadhav, the batsman he replaced in the Super Kings’ line-up.
It puts Rayudu’s role — and Pietersen’s comments — into focus. You can understand his slow start to the innings because Chennai lost Faf du Plessis and Shane Watson early on. But once set, Rayudu showed a lack of urgency. 42 off 40 balls, with only four boundaries, that strike-rate of 105 was abysmal to say the least. Sure, you cannot score boundaries all the time as opposition attack and other conditions are also a factor.
However, this is not about boundaries at all. During one of his on-air stints, Pietersen pointed out that Rayudu simply didn’t up the ante by transferring pressure back onto the opposition. He was lazy in running between the wickets, not forcing the fielders to rush for their throws, and taking easy singles when he ought to have been pushing for twos, or atleast looking to convert ones into twos.
Again, it is not just about boundaries even if they are inherent to the T20 game. Look at Virat Kohli’s knock – 90 not out off 52 balls with only 4 fours and 4 sixes. That’s a total of 40 runs from boundaries. The rest? It is a gobsmacking fact that Kohli ran 50 of those runs, in a T20 match, in that Dubai heat and humidity. Were all of the 52 deliveries he faced boundary deliveries? No. How did he manage to run so many? He put pressure on the fielders and was not lazy in between the wickets.
Given how the 2020 IPL has progressed for Bangalore, it was an odd innings. None of their batsmen came to the party. Chennai have applied pressure with their bowling and fielding, and it told once again. Kohli stood his ground, supported by Devdutt Padikkal (33 off 34 balls) for a little duration, and then saw his side to a not-too-challenging, but defendable score.
This was Kohli at his textbook T20 best. Adding 53 with Padikkal, he buckled under Chennai bowling’s pressure and dug deep. Most of the running came from there. At the halfway mark in the innings, he was at 23 off 18 balls, Royal Challenger Bangalore (RCB) lost Padikkal soon after. He ran and ran, using even his defensive strokes to steal singles. That is Kohli’s true genius in white ball cricket. There are very few dot balls even when the bowlers are on top.
It was a game of chess against MS Dhoni and his clever bowling changes, but Kohli didn’t give up. Six of his eight boundaries (fours and sixes) came after the 10-over mark. In the 17th and 18th over, when Kohli and Shivam Dube took 38 runs off Chennai, they still ran 10 of those runs. The pressure told on the opposition as they conceded 74 runs off the last five overs. Kohli scored 48 off 19 balls, running 22 of those.
Cynics will argue that it is tough to replicate Kohli. Of course, there is no one like him in world cricket today. He is a singularly complete batsman across all three formats and Royal Challengers Bangalore are lucky to have him. They are just a tad unlucky that his brilliance hasn’t resulted in an IPL win yet.
Maybe things will change on that front this season – RCB have started well, they have a good balance between bat and ball, and captain Kohli is resisting the urge to make too many changes except tactical ones. Consistency is creeping in their ranks and it can only be a good thing.
Coming to the point again, only RCB can boast of a batsman like Kohli. Chennai – and Dhoni – will probably sacrifice an arm or leg right now to have someone who is even a pale shadow of Kohli. Hell, they will take someone as exuberant yet calculated as Padikkal in their ranks. Chennai’s wares are so depleted that they have no clue where the big shots are coming from, if indeed they are coming at all. By the time they look to change gears, it has been deemed too late in their five losses in seven matches.
That last sentence is a sad commentary on Chennai’s state of affairs. Put it simply, they are struggling for a top-order batsman to come out and stamp his authority on the game. Preferably the batsman should be Indian, but at this moment it doesn’t really matter. There is no audacity, no commitment, and no adventurism in that top-order and Chennai are on their knees wondering where any of it will come from.
Chennai’s quandary is unique. They knew certain weaknesses were starting to creep into their squad, but a comeback triumph in 2018 IPL and another final appearance in 2019 papered over all of those cracks. Then, the team management in all its wisdom decided to wing it for one more season, in anticipation of the mega 2021 auctions. COVID-19 though played spoilsport and now there is a chance there could be no auction at all ahead of the next IPL season in six months’ time. Chennai, meanwhile, are losing out every possible way, and big time.
It also suggests the fallacy in their methods. Experience is all very fine, but you always need a proper dose of youth in any IPL squad. Look around, and tons of youngsters are tearing it up across the IPL. Some of them have made their wares in the Tamil Nadu Premier League – Washington Sundar, Varun Chakravarthy, T Natarajan, and so on. Couldn’t Chennai have harboured these youngsters and assimilated them into their squad over a period of time?
By not giving youth a chance, Chennai are missing that desire to push boundaries and do the impossible. Youth does that – young players seizing the day, making a name for themselves by grabbing opportunities, creating headlines and notifying selectors.
Golden oldies, who have either retired or are at the fag end of their long careers, either do not have the same desire or cannot express it in the same exuberant manner.
Rayudu – with his lethargic running on Saturday – is a prime example. It is not to say he should be replaced by youth, no, but that has to be Chennai’s rebuild strategy going forward.
For, it is also a fact that Rayudu will not drag the Super Kings out of this quagmire and win them the IPL again, or even too many games, single-handedly. He is not Virat Kohli.
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