Gujarat Lions mauled by one man, but their admirable IPL 2016 run was built on team effort
Cricket is a funny game. It is a leveller, not just for the players, but also for writers. The last article I wrote underlined how individual performances are often insufficient to secure wins for a team, even in a sport which is essentially one-on-one. The last two games the Gujarat Lions have played seem to be hell bent on proving me wrong. For the second time in a week, the Lions were pipped to the post by a belligerent individual effort. While their top billing at the end of the group phase meant they had a second chance after the AB de Villiers masterclass, David Warner sent them packing from their first Indian Premier League (IPL).
Thanks to some serious fielding lapses from the Sunrisers Hyderabad, the Lions put up a competitive score, which should have been enough, had it not been for the sheer force of will of the Sunrisers captain. Suresh Raina’s team were in control when they had half the opponents dismissed with the score at 84. But Warner, with admirable support from Bipul Sharma, rode his purple patch to secure a spot in the final for his team. It meant that the Lions had to pack their bags, not for Bengaluru, but for their respective homes.
The fact that it was their first IPL predisposes one to look at the exploits of the Gujurat Lions with slightly rose-tinted glasses. The fact is, the XI that played in their last game had a combined IPL experience of 915 matches. Gujarat Lions were mostly a team of vastly experienced T20 players, and should be judged as such, and not as newbies. Yet even by more stringent standards, they have much to be proud of.
Most importantly, is that their journey has been a team effort. While the phrase is a well worn cliché, the numbers back it up. The only Lions batter in the top 10 is Suresh Raina, and he only just makes the list. Ditto with the economy rates chart, where Dhawal Kulkarni sits at number 10 (minimum 10 overs bowled). While there are two Lions bowlers in the leading wicket taker top 10 (Kulkarni and Dwayne Bravo), they have far from set the league on fire. And yet, the Lions finished at the top of the table in the group stage.
Unlike some other teams, notably — and ironically — those they lost to in the playoffs, the Lions were not reliant on any one player. This could never be more aptly demonstrated than by the fact that when Aaron Finch returned to the XI after an injury layoff, he found his opening duties stolen from him. Or by Kulkarni, who did not feature in the XI at the start of the season, but impressed with the ball at both ends of the innings when he got the chance, even keeping Dale Steyn out of the XI. The likes of Bravo — with his dipping slower balls — and Shivil Kaushik — he of the contorted limbs — were popular with the fans as well as with the coach, for their ability to change the game quickly.
The good fortune of having multiple match-winners in your ranks is something that serves any team well in the long run. If the Gujarat Lions don’t fiddle too much with their roster next year, the franchise is likely to be in the hunt for silverware again in 2017.
While Raina’s captaincy came in for much praise at the start of the tournament, he ended it with some moves that were difficult to explain. Foremost among those, was the decision to open with Eklavya Dwivedi in Friday’s game. Why break up the triad of Finch-Smith-McCullum, who had until now been so happily engaged in a game of kho-kho between numbers one, two and five? While it was the kind of move that would have been acclaimed had it worked, it made little sense to hold the highest scorer in the last game — Dwayne Smith — back at number six.
Then, the fact that Ravindra Jadeja bowled a grand total of zero balls — at the Kotla no less — is inexplicable. Here, Raina seemed to take a page out of his former franchise captain’s book. Remember that Rising Pune Supergiants vs Royal Challengers Bangalore game where MS Dhoni only used R Ashwin for one over because there were right-handers batting? It’s like Raina said, what you can do, I can do better. While the rationale for not using an incoming spinner exists, following that course to the point of extremity is a tactic more likely to be seen in club cricket. Jadeja is an international cricketer of some repute, who six months ago took a five-for on the Ferozshah Kotla, albeit on a much drier pitch. At some point, Raina needed to trust him to get the job done, irrespective of the ambidexterity of the opponent.
Despite these blips, the Lions have had an admirable run in their first outing. While the players were all old hands, the franchise — in less than two months — has captured the imaginations of the fans, proving to be a chip off the old Chennai Super Kings block. This is something even some of the original franchises have not managed. Together with their success on the field, the Gujarat Lions leave one waiting to see this team again in 2017.
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