Cricket

IPL 2020: Off-balance KXIP continue to slip as Sunrisers Hyderabad find their groove

  • Chetan Narula
  • October 9th, 2020
  • 12:08:33 IST

The 2020 Indian Premier League table is beginning to take a firm shape. It has a little to do with Thursday night’s result as Sunrisers Hyderabad blanked Kings XI Punjab by 69 runs. Just two points on the board, fourth loss in a row, and a questionable team selection, Punjab are bottom of the pile, unsurprisingly.

The table is now headed by Mumbai Indians, followed by Delhi Capitals – these are two teams with great consistency in team selection, a settled batting line-up, and a mostly consistent bowling attack. Hyderabad, Kolkata Knight Riders, and Royal Challengers Bangalore make up the top five, and they show similar traits to the teams on top. The conclusion is obvious – in a weird season where teams’ preparations went haywire, consistency is all that matters.

KXIP are still looking for an ideal balance in their playing XI as losses pile up. Image courtesy: Sportzpics

KXIP are still looking for an ideal balance in their playing XI as losses pile up. Image courtesy: Sportzpics

This was a clash between two teams who are at the opposite ends of that spectrum. They got off to a bad start but Hyderabad have hit upon a formula that works for them. From two losses in the first two games, to only one loss in four subsequent matches, David Warner’s side is moving up the table. They are not a finished product yet, but their strides have been quick.

Hyderabad are one of those unique IPL sides that boast overseas players as their mainstay. A nucleus of Warner, Jonny Bairstow, Kane Williamson, Mohammad Nabi, and Rashid Khan will always be vital in their fortunes, and the onus is on finding a balance to the side. For that purpose, they had brought Manish Pandey, and boosted morale with Indian youngsters in the middle order as well as their bowling attack. This plan seems to be working, finally.

The Warner-Bairstow pairing is an odd one because it makes Hyderabad’s batting line-up very top-heavy. Not many IPL franchises use two overseas batsmen as openers for precisely this reason – Chennai Super Kings are perhaps the only exception and Rajasthan Royals briefly experimented with Steve Smith and Jos Buttler this season. When it doesn’t work, you want to break up the pairing and think up alternate ideas that potentially include Kane Williamson moving up.

Thing is, the Warner-Bairstow pairing works, making for an oddly attacking couple at all times. Last year they slammed it out of the park, putting on 1137 runs across 22 innings between them. That’s an average of 51 runs every time they opened the batting, with their individual strike-rates topping the 140-mark. Goes without saying, it works amply well for T20 cricket and Kings XI Punjab were on the wrong end of the receiving stick.

Jonny Bairstow and David Warner gave SRH a perfect start against KXIP. Image courtesy: Sportzpics

Jonny Bairstow and David Warner gave SRH a perfect start against KXIP. Image courtesy: Sportzpics

Logically, this pairing shouldn’t work this well together. The anchorage role in T20s is quickly gaining importance, yet the consistency factor herein cannot be denied. Warner is an IPL veteran but the manner in which Bairstow has taken to IPL is a testament to their strength in similarities. Both want to go after the bowling, both want to take charge, neither wants to play second fiddle and at the same time, both are easily adaptable in playing to the situation. As their innings went on, Bairstow opened up and Warner was happy to play along – it is the hallmark of a great batting pairing.

This was only the second instance in six matches that Warner-Bairstow fired in unison. Last time around was against Delhi Capitals when they put on 77 for the first wicket, and on this evening, they went a couple of steps further, adding 160 runs off 91 balls. Of course, Punjab’s poor fielding didn’t help either, but don’t mistake it for a case of being outplayed. There’s a difference in being hit out of the park and having no response, and just not being good enough to challenge the batsmen. For the Kings XI bowling attack, this latter bit was more relevant on the day.

Simply put, Punjab’s bowling attack has gone to pieces after a bright start to this season. Sheldon Cottrell has had one good game in his last five outings, which in turn has impacted Mohammed Shami. There’s too much responsibility on his shoulders now and he is losing his rhythm without support from other bowlers. Further, most teams have used a third pacer option in the early part of IPL 2020. But Punjab don’t really have one, tossing between James Neesham and Chris Jordan. Neither has been afforded the time to get going after frequent changes.

That’s not all – Chris Gayle and Hardus Viljoen haven’t got a look in. Mujeeb ur Rehman played his first game three weeks into the tournament, while Punjab have repeatedly hedged their bets on Glenn Maxwell’s non-existent form. The Australian has faced 56 balls in six innings scoring a mere 48 runs. Is this really worth the money they paid for him? More than that, is it worth relegating someone like Gayle onto the bench again and again?

The Gayle conundrum isn’t easy. He is more an elephant in the room than a handy batsman at the moment, but could he lift sagging spirits? Part of the issue was KL Rahul and Mayank Agarwal showing stupendous form at the front. But two batsmen cannot score in every innings and can never win you a franchise league like IPL. Did Punjab prepare a contingency plan? No.

Rahul and Agarwal have scored 313 and 281 runs, respectively, in six matches each. The next best is Nicholas Pooran’s 196, and 77 of those came on Thursday night against Hyderabad. Like other teams, Punjab have chopped and changed in search of balance and form. However, their experimentation has not yielded any results. K Gowtham (2 matches), Sarfaraz Khan (5 matches), Mandeep Singh (2 matches) and Karun Nair (4 matches) have been through the revolving door. Together, these four have scored 124 runs between them.

Did they really have any chance chasing Hyderabad’s 201/6? The prudent answer is no, but stranger things have happened in cricket and in this IPL season itself. But for a Tewatia repeat to happen, or even chasing hard enough to force a close encounter (or a Super Over), the batting line-up needs confidence as stability in their ranks. Punjab are lacking severely in both departments.

At this juncture, you want to ask the question – what is up with their selection policy? Where is the stability that can guarantee some confidence flowing through the ranks? When neither Rahul nor Pooran is keeping wickets, and they pick a third-choice keeper-batsman very few people have heard of, are they even picking the right team?

Pooran’s blitzkrieg was entertaining but it was no more than false hope. Truth be told, they were never in the chase, especially when there was Rashid Khan to contend with. Mostly, he is content letting teams play out his overs to their own losses, but against KXIP, he was on the attack. Khan holds Hyderabad’s attack together, marshalling the Indian troops especially in Bhuvneshwar Kumar’s absence.

The Sunrisers’ overseas-players-formula is a good one if you can manage to replicate it. Warner, Bairstow, and Williamson manning the batting, with Khan handling bowling wares – get some proper support acts, aid them with stability, and they could push for a knock-out spot.

For Punjab though, it might already be too late.

Updated Date: October 09, 2020 12:08:33 IST

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