Barely five months have passed since the culmination of IPL 2020, and yet, a lot seems to have changed for Punjab Kings. A change of name is perhaps their last throw of dice, but KL Rahul’s men, hitherto known as Kings XI Punjab, will have to do a lot more than cosmetic corrections should they want their fortunes to change as the 14th edition of the Indian Premier League (IPL) gets rolling on 9 April.
A sixth-place finish in 2020 was on par with their consistently poor run since 2015, but it doesn’t fully narrate the turnaround they had in the second half of their most recent campaign. After losing six of their first seven games, Punjab went on a five-match winning run, before capitulating in their last two games to bow out of yet another playoffs race.
In fact, the last time they made it to the playoffs was in 2014, and the man who starred for them in that campaign in the UAE, Glenn Maxwell, was released by the franchise in the February auction. Maxwell, a perennial big-ticket buy in the IPL, had a forgettable season with Kings XI Punjab in 2020, famously failing to hit a single six in the tournament. They have also let go of Sheldon Cottrell, Mujeeb Zadran, Hardus Viljoen, James Neesham, Krishnappa Gowtham, Karun Nair, Jagadeesha Suchith, and Tejinder Singh Dhillon.
The induction of the Aussie trio of Jhye Richardson, Riley Meredith, and Moises Henriques adds much-needed balance and flexibility to the squad, although spending Rs 22 crore on two foreign pacers (Rs 14 crore for Richardson and Rs 8 crore for Meredith) doesn't appear an overtly pragmatic punt. While one of Richardson and Meredith may share the new ball with Mohammad Shami, Henriques, who is returning to IPL after a three-year hiatus, should provide a useful all-round option.
Then, there’s young Arshdeep Singh, whose height and deceptive pace surprised a few batsmen last season. He also has quite a few variations, and if used intelligently in the middle overs, he can be a reliable option. However, the Punjab Kings bowler who impressed the most last season was young leg-spinner Ravi Bishnoi.
The leading wicket-taker of the Under-19 World Cup 2020, Bishnoi snared 12 wickets from 14 matches at an economy of 7.37 runs per over in his debut IPL. Not afraid to get hit and always gunning for wickets with an aggressive line, Bishnoi, who is also an excellent fielder, appeared comfortable bowling in the powerplay as well as in the death overs. His second year under the tutelage of spin legend Anil Kumble can potentially do wonders with his career, especially with the T20 World Cup scheduled later this year.
His spin twin in the squad, Murugan Ashwin, is another wily leggie blessed with a mean googly. Ashwin picked 10 wickets from nine matches last year at an economy of 7.46, presenting a case for a more sustained run in this edition. What Punjab lack, though, is a dependable off-spinner.
“He reminds me a bit of Pollard!”
— Punjab Kings (@PunjabKingsIPL) April 4, 2021
In the batting department, a lot will depend on Rahul’s approach at the top of the innings. Last year, thanks in part to lack of depth in his team, Rahul batted at a strike rate of 129.34, and though the weight of his 670 runs cannot be undermined, a slow start will naturally put the line-up under undue pressure. Kings’ batting coach Wasim Jaffer has assured that Rahul will be far more aggressive this season, which might mean more game time for Chris Gayle.
The West Indian legend was introduced only at the halfway stage of the tournament last year, and he proved central to Punjab’s rearguard. Together with hard-hitting southpaw Nicholas Pooran, Gayle adds much-needed firepower to Punjab’s middle order, though Rahul may also consider opening with Gayle instead of Mayank Agarwal given the former’s general preference to bide his time before unleashing his brute force.
Pooran, meanwhile, should be a certainty in the playing XI. After the ignominy of becoming the only player in IPL history to register two ducks in the same match (regulation game as well as the super over), he went on to score 353 runs from his next 13 innings. His 25 sixes and the astonishing strike rate of 169.71 were the best in the season by any Kings XI Punjab player, and featured in the top-10 list of tournament. Add his extraordinary fielding in the mix, and Punjab have a very dependable tailor-made T20 asset who could serve them well this season and beyond.
This leaves World No 1 T20I bastman Dawid Malan in a very precarious position. Not known to be an out-and-out hitter, Malan’s innings-building approach is at odds with Punjab’s team balance; remember, they have Gayle and Rahul who start in a similar fashion. Plus, with Gayle, Pooran, and one of Richardson or Meredith appearing certain starters, Malan will have his task cut out.
Among the Indian talents, Shahrukh Khan is bound to attract a lot of attention, not least for his famous name. That apart, Khan is known for his big-hitting prowess and had a good Syed Mushtaq Ali Trophy that sealed his Rs 5.25 crore deal with the Kings. Sarfaraz Khan and Deepak Hooda will do well to come out from the fringes, while young Ishan Porel, another U-19 World Cup product, should be hoping to get a few games after spending the entire last season on the bench. Punjab Kings have a team to reach the playoffs, beyond which, it would be a matter of having a few good days. They open their campaign against Rajasthan Royals on 12 April in Mumbai.
Full Squad: KL Rahul (c and wk), Mayank Agarwal, Chris Gayle, Mandeep Singh, Prabsimran Singh, Nicholas Pooran (wk), Sarfaraz Khan, Deepak Hooda, Murugan Ashwin, Ravi Bishnoi, Harpreet Brar, Mohammed Shami, Arshdeep Singh, Ishan Porel, Darshan Nalkande, Chris Jordan, Dawid Malan, Jhye Richardson, Shahrukh Khan, Riley Meredith, Moises Henriques, Jalaj Saxena, Utkarsh Singh, Fabian Allen, Saurabh Kumar.
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