Ashgar Stanikzai is the Afghanistan captain. His name was the first to come up in the Indian Premier League (IPL) auction on 20 February. But amid the galaxy of stars up for grabs, his name slipped by almost unnoticed.
After their captain had come and gone with little interest from the franchises, Afghanistan’s foray into the IPL did not carry much hope. When the leader of a team that has only recently forced the world to take notice did not invoke interest, his teammates would have held no chance.
But Sunrisers Hyderabad back less-celebrated international talent. They snapped up Mustafizur Rahman, who was only a few months old at the international level, at the 2016 auction.
Despite the luxury of only four foreign players in the playing XI, the Sunrisers backed the left-arm pacer from Bangladesh to play almost every game. The ploy worked as the batsmen struggled to pick Mustafizur. His cutters bamboozled Indian and international batsmen alike, as his 17 wickets charted Hyderabad’s path to the championship.
So on 20 February, buoyed by Mustafizur’s success, the Sunrisers brought to life the IPL dream for not one but two of Stanikzai’s teammates. The first man from the country to bag an IPL contract was Mohammad Nabi, who David Warner’s team bought for his base price of Rs 30 lakh.
By now, Imran Tahir, the world’s number one leg-spinner, had gone unsold too. It was clear that the franchises from the land of spinners considered overseas spinners a surplus resource. Yet, leg-spinner Rashid Khan became the other Afghanistan player who was handed the ticket to the glitzy league. Mumbai Indians opened the bidding, but the Sunrisers had a trend to live up to. They went full throttle and acquired the services of the 18-year-old for a stunning Rs 4 crore.
With Stanikzai and Tahir unsold, Rashid followed the auction on his mobile amidst dwindling hope. Almost three months later, Rashid has become a household name, and him chewing gum with his arms spread has become a mode of celebration everyone wants to follow.
The crowd at Kanpur's Green Park was treated to the celebration thrice on Saturday evening against Gujarat Lions. The Sunrisers Hyderabad appeared to have lost control of a game they could not dare to lose. Dwayne Smith and Ishan Kishan had provided the Lions a blazing start, taking them to 111 in 10.4 overs. That is when Rashid triggered a collapse when he trapped the West Indian leg before wicket.
Rashid’s googly has stood out as much as his celebration. And a couple of overs later, his googly sent Dinesh Karthik and Aaron Finch back to the dugout within a space of a few deliveries.
Gujarat were moving along like a bullet train in the first half of the innings, but Rashid’s three-wicket haul derailed them. Eventually, the Sunrisers won the game and sealed their spot for the play-offs.
With 17 wickets in 13 games thus far, Rashid has been to the Sunrisers what Mustafizur had been to them last season. The scenario was unexpected when the Sunrisers staved off bids to procure his services. The inflated price tag could have left the Sunrisers with the possibility of being a laughing stock had Rashid not come off, but Warner’s team aced it for the second year in a row.
In fact, like last year, Warner has been the team’s batting mainstay. He finished second behind Virat Kohli in 2016, but appears set to sit atop the pile this season. Like last year, Shikhar Dhawan has been his 'partner in crime' at the top. the Indian opener is 136 behind Warner’s 604, and has been SRH's second-best batsman this IPL.
Warner and Dhawan have been a headache for opponents at the top. Their consistency has meant that they are the only opening pair, across the eight teams, which has remained unchanged. Apart from runs they have plundered together, either of the two has managed to stand up and take responsibility when the other has fallen.
Dhawan could add only nine against Gujarat Lions at the Rajiv Gandhi Stadium, but Warner’s unbeaten 76 guided Hyderabad’s successful chase in April. Similarly, after the captain was dismissed for four in the second over against the visiting Delhi Daredevils, Dhawan’s 70 ensured a match-winning total.
On rare occasions when both Dhawan and Warner failed, Yuvraj Singh, Kane Williamson or Moises Henriques reminded the opponents that the Sunrisers’ story with the bat did not end with Warner and Dhawan.
A vintage Yuvraj promised to take the IPL by storm after he brought out his elegant drives in the opening game. However, soon after that knock, the left-hander poked and missed more than he connected. For a chunk of the games, he barely contributed. But as the race for the play-offs gathered momentum, Yuvraj came out of hibernation. Yuvraj’s hook, pull, flick, drive and loft are back just in time for the Eliminator.
Henriques has often been preferred over Williamson in the top-order, and he chipped in with handy contributions with the bat. And in the six games that Williamson played, he showed glimpses of why he was one of the best in the world.
But if the opposition could knock off the openers and suffocate the middle-order, they would have an opportunity to exploit the only weakness that the champions possess – a brittle lower-middle order.
The powerhouse top-order of the Sunrisers meant that the lower-order was not exposed often. It also meant that the lower-order remained rusty. So when the likes of Naman Ojha, Deepak Hooda, Bipul Sharma and Ben Cutting had their chances with the bat, none of them were able to make heads turn. Vijay Shankar’s unbeaten 63 in the last group match against the Lions provides hope that there could be life after the more illustrious top-order too.
But all the runs that the men with the willow have scored for the Sunrisers would have held no value had their bowlers not picked up wickets. Mustafizur was the surprise weapon last season. Rashid has duly played the part so far this year, so that the Bangladesh pacer was called upon for just one game this season. And, like in 2016, it is Bhuvneshwar Kumar who is leading the list of wicket-takers in the league.
Bhuvneshwar had a major impact with his 23 wickets last year. And with 25 wickets, he has been lethal this year too. He had added yards of pace to his bowling last year, and has consistently hit the 140 kmph mark this year. When he moves the ball at that pace, he leaves batsmen clueless. Most evidently, he has developed an accurate yorker, which has turned him into an equally effective bowler at the 'death'.
With all their arms and ammunition loaded, Warner’s men head to Bengaluru. They are yet to win three consecutive matches this season. The trend will have to change now, though, as they face the Kolkata Knight Riders in the Eliminator. The Sunrisers have won the last two matches and cannot afford to slip up on Wednesday. A loss now will mean they will have to surrender their crown.
“It's about not worrying about the next couple of games, must take each game as it comes. We need to keep backing our skills," Warner had opined after his team qualified for the play-offs.
However, the Sunrisers have followed a script that is reminiscent of their road to glory last year – the Warner-Dhawan heroics and Bhuvneshwar’s bagful of wickets. They will hope that the resemblance in the script continues. For, they were in the Eliminator last year too.
In 2016, they had to win three knockout matches to win the title. In 2017, their final leg of the analogy begins on Wednesday.
Updated Date: May 16, 2017 14:33 PM