Still top of IPL table, but Gujarat Lions look tired, jaded and unsure of best XI

A blip, or a problem? Played nine, won six. Not bad, not bad at all. But played seven, won six was a lot, lot better. The subsequent played two, lost two is a lot, lot worse. Gujarat Lions still sit proudly atop the IPL 2016 table — but probably not for long.

Having looked an accomplished, maybe even champion team, the Lions have had a serious sequential hiccough. As we all know, the hiccups can be easily shrugged off sometimes, while some feel as though they are here to stay. Suresh Raina and his team will now have to take a moment to try all those little tricks to shift them out of their system. Drinking a glass of water, maybe? A big slap on the back? Or getting someone to give them a big fright? Losing comfortably to bottom-placed Kings XI Punjab, and then to Delhi Daredevils, ought to be scary enough to shake them out.

Delhi Daredevils players celebrate a wicket against Gujarat Lions. BCCI

Delhi Daredevils players celebrate a wicket against Gujarat Lions. BCCI

They certainly don't have the option of holding their breath and waiting for the hiccups to pass. They have a game against Sunrisers Hyderabad coming up on Friday evening, followed by another match just 48 hours later. Raina and his players look in need of a break, but that is not upon the immediate horizon. They do get one next week; after Sunday's match against Kolkata Knight Riders, they have six days to regroup and rest tired limbs and minds before facing Royal Challengers Bangalore on Saturday. But that is too far ahead to afford to relax now. It is unthinkable that they can allow the twin defeats to develop into a losing streak — it may mean a campaign lost.

They must dig deep quickly, and smartly — every man must do his duty. Nobody is doubting that the players are doing their best, but for two games in a row, it was far from good enough. Several small signs of fatigue were evident: Tired dismissals of top-order batsmen, a stumping missed and a catch dropped by the usually dependable wicket-keeper Dinesh Karthik, and some curious bowling changes from the skipper. The Lions are misstepping. Sometimes literally, such as the sloppy no-ball from slow left-armer Ravindra Jadeja when Karthik had completed a stumping, or when Shivil Kaushik aborted his first two attempts to bowl, catching umpire Bruce Oxenford’s protruding protective shield as he approached the crease in his delivery stride.

Things are not quite right. Injuries have not helped: The loss of Aaron Finch after four matches did not appear at first to be much of a blow. But he'd been on a roll, with 50s in each of their first three games to propell his side to victory. A duck in the next game did not mask that he was carrying a dodgy hamstring. He returned to face the Daredevils, but was again out cheaply.

Indeed, the form of Lions' overseas batting stars has fallen off, directly coinciding with their fall from grace. Opening batsmen Dwayne Smith and Brendon McCullum have been irresistible when on song, but the pair has now failed  twice in a row. Not even Sinatra could sing sweetly when the hiccups were upon him. Their dismissals also smacked of déjà vu: Smith again holing out straight in the deep to a mistimed lofted straight drive; and McCullum once again  bowled while trying a hideous smear. It's also concerning is that the New Zealander always appeared to be carrying an injury when batting, although he hasn't let this trouble him in the field.

Injuries to visiting international players have been in the news this week, and the Lions will be desperate that none of their stars succumb similarly. Bravo was ruled out of Tuesday's game and was much missed. The dependability of his late innings overs always being a banker in the bowling department. In response to his unavailability, the Lions didn't adjust their resources accordingly. They played with a bowler less, Bravo being replaced by a top quality, top-order batsman, meaning they were a bowler short. As it was, Raina, Karthik and Jadeja all slotted down a place in the order, and it was their contributions that got the team to a fairly decent total of 149. But one would have thought that Ishan Kishan, batting at number eight, and facing only two balls in the final over, was surplus to requirements — and could have effectively been substituted for one of the Lions' decent spin options.

But maybe Raina fancied that role for himself? He is one of those leaders who enjoys turning his arm over. Some skippers are reluctant bowlers, while others need little persuasion to mark out their run-up. My own personal favourite when I was growing up was Middlesex and England's Mike Gatting. He loved the excuse to have an exploratory over or two. But as captain of England, he could only justify having a go if better bowlers had had done so first — and that included my boyhood hero, Graham Gooch. He was marginally superior to Gatting, and everyone knew it. Therefore, if Gatt was going to get a bowl, Goochie would have a chance to swing his arm over first. Thus, Gooch would get an over before lunch — and Gatting could have a trundle before tea.

But it's still hard to justify Raina bowling a full complement of four overs before either Jadeja or James Faulkner had bowled a single over. That really did not make sense. It also probably didn't make much difference — the excellent batting by Daredevils' openers Quinton de Kock and Rishabh Pant essentially sealing the match — but the point stands.

The Lions need to steady the ship — this has become an all hands to the pumps situation — and if it is premature to talk in terms of the Lions' vessel beginning to sink, it is taking on water. They need to find balance — in their cricket, and their playing XI. On paper they are a strong side, when they are fit, and when they pick the right combination. But right now, they are looking tired and jaded. It will be a test of the players' fortitude, of Raina's leadership, and the management's strength to pick the Lions up, dust them off, and get them quickly back to winning ways.

Updated Date: May 04, 2016 15:14 PM

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