Kings XI Punjab. All royalty and pedigree, if one goes by the sheer weight in that name, that is. A visit to the fine PCA Stadium in Mohali – their home base before COVID-19 intervened - buttresses the aura, as do their raucous fans and a galaxy of glamour in the owners’ box. One look at their performances over the years though is enough to dispel all the fluff. Two playoffs appearances in 12 attempts, the last one being six years back, do not inspire much confidence, neither does their propensity to lose steam midway through the tournament with alarming regularity.
This season, the stars seem to be aligning in a funny way for them. IPL 2020 has moved to the UAE, and KXIP will take a lot of heart from the fact that their last playoffs appearance, where they went on to play the final, came when the event was partially held in the Emirates in 2014.
Glenn Maxwell did a star turn that season and had a dream IPL. The Australian right-hander reeled off 552 runs from 16 matches at a strike rate of 187.75, and finished the edition as the highest six-hitter (36) and the third-highest scorer. Maxwell has joined forces with KXIP at a price of Rs 10.75 crore, and the franchise would hope that UAE rekindles some happy memories for the attacking batsman. Should he fire, KXIP’s top-order of skipper KL Rahul, Chris Gayle, and Mayank Agarwal can look to be more aggressive and impose themselves on the opposition.
KXIP skipper Rahul is likely to be their batting mainstay. Arguably the finest T20 batsman in the country today, Rahul’s attacking game is built on a solid defensive foundation, much like his India skipper Virat Kohli, and much like Kohli, the Karnataka batsman has shown the ability to switch gears at will.
Rahul is one of the very few Indian batsmen who can tee off from the first ball, and also possesses the game to bat through the innings. He has had two stellar seasons with KXIP (659 runs from 14 matches in 2018, followed by 593 runs from 14 matches the next year), and has been justifiably rewarded with captaincy after Ravichandran Ashwin’s exit.
KXIP will hope that the dreaded law of averages doesn’t catch up with their skipper. It will also be interesting to observe his leadership in the hectic format, especially with the addition of nine players in their squad this season. Assisting him in making the right calls will be head coach Anil Kumble. A fierce competitor and an astute reader of the game, Kumble’s inputs are expected to hold the first-time IPL captain in right stead when things get tricky.
Then, there’s the Chris Gayle factor. The West Indies legend will be 41 by the time KXIP’s campaign hits the rails, but age is seldom a factor with the left-hander. He had a fairly decent 2019 with 490 runs from 13 matches at a strike rate of 153.60, and Rahul will be hoping to forge a fruitful partnership with the 'Universe Boss' at the top.
Together with Mayank Agarwal, KXIP boast of a powerful top three, followed by the likes of Maxwell, Mandeep Singh, Karun Nair, and/or Sarfaraz Khan. In Nicholas Pooran, they have an exciting overseas left-hander too who can hit the ball long and hard. Fresh from a whirlwind ton in the Caribbean Premier League, Pooran has been generating quite a buzz for over a year now with many believing him to be one of the players to watch out for in KXIP set-up.
On paper, that looks a formidable middle order, but a lot will also depend on the team selection and players’ self-belief. Much water has flown since Maxwell’s breakout 2014 – he lost form, his inconsistency became notorious, and he had to take a break from cricket for the sake of his mental health. Karnataka teammates Mayank and Karun are, without doubt, talented batsmen, but none has so far done anything of note in the IPL. As things stand, only one of them looks likely to make it to the starting 11, with Pooran’s recent form being too strong to ignore.
In the bowling department, Mohammed Shami, Sheldon Cottrell, and Chris Jordan will lead the pace attack. Death bowling has been a concern for KXIP, and Rahul will bank on the end-over exploits of Jordan to bail them out. Shami, not exactly considered a T20 bowler, had his best IPL last year when he snared 19 wickets from 14 games in his debut season for KXIP. He can go for runs, as his career IPL economy of 8.99 runs an over suggests, but is a genuine wicket-taking option if he finds his length early.
What may hurt KXIP is the absence of a world-class Indian pacer to back Shami, though Ishan Porel and Arshdeep Singh may be expected to get a few games. With two of Gayle, Pooran, and Maxwell likely to feature in most matches, Rahul may have a tough time picking one of Cottrell and Jordan.
Spin-wise, KXIP let go of Ashwin, probably because their erstwhile home base offered precious nothing to spinners. With the tournament now moving to spin-friendly UAE, they will certainly miss the services of the Tami Nadu off-spinner who will now display his wares for Delhi Capitals. That means Mujeeb, despite a forgettable 2019 (three wickets from five matches at an economy of 10.05), may get a number of games. The second spinner’s slot is likely to go to debutant leg-spinner Ravi Bishnoi.
Bishnoi, who recently turned 20, was the find of this year’s Under-19 World Cup where his 17 wickets from six games made him the tournament’s top wicket-taker. Many are expecting him to blossom under the tutelage of Kumble, but whether that actually transpires is something that remains to be seen.
All in all, KXIP have assembled a squad that gives them many options for each position, albeit not every option appears exactly world-beating. However, if Kumble’s knowledge bank is anything to go by, they will find a way to consistently maximise their potential. It may all come down to Rahul’s captaincy and batting in the end.
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