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Just past the halfway stage this Indian Premier League (IPL) season, front-runners and laggards are fairly well-defined. This is somewhat different from previous years, when the league would be “open” till the last fortnight, adding to the suspense.
Going by the points table and net run rates, Mumbai Indians, Kolkata Knight Riders and Sunrisers Hyderabad look certain for the play-offs. The remaining five teams are stalking each other for fourth place, or to play spoiler.
Given the unpredictability of the T20 format, it would be foolish to predict a winner at this stage. But there is a key message that has come through clearly at this point in the tournament: Essentially, teams that are well balanced—in batting and bowling—are doing well.
The performances of Mumbai, Kolkata and Hyderabad reflect this strongly, suggesting that a well-conceived selection policy—with adequate bench strength that provides cover for the main players—is essential. Stars by themselves are no guarantors of success.
Teams that have invested heavily in big names, caring little about the balance and composition of the squad, are struggling. Indeed, those skewed heavily in favour of batting (e.g., Gujarat Lions) are paying the price for misreading the trend in T20: Bowlers matter.
Tactics also make a major difference. It is wrongly perceived that T20 is all slam-bang, with a two-point agenda: for batsmen to slog every ball and for bowlers to adopt a singularly defensive approach. As the format has evolved, so have strategies.
Captaincy has acquired a more crucial dimension than was earlier imagined. Not only does it require the group leader to keep morale high and adrenalin flowing every minute of the match, it requires him to also read the opponents keenly.
For instance, in the match against Gujarat which went into the Super Over, the Mumbai Indians captain, Rohit Sharma, handed the ball to young Jasprit Bumrah, instead of the vastly experienced Lasith Malinga and Harbhajan Singh or leading wicket-taker Mitchell McClenaghan, to win the match for them.
This would have caught the Gujarat openers off guard. Needing only 12 to win—which is fairly normal in this format—Gujarat could score just six in the Super Over.
For the record, the openers were Brendon McCullum and Aaron Finch, two of the biggest hitters in the game. Brilliantly though Bumrah bowled his yorkers and varied pace, I reckon it was the element of surprise that did them in.
Kolkata took the surprise factor to a diabolical level by making spinner Sunil Narine an opening batsman after the injury to Chris Lynn. Almost everybody thought this was a mistake. But Narine has opened in most matches and done his job fabulously.
This was a brainwave from skipper Gautam Gambhir. Narine’s range of strokes is limited, but he has bravado and the ability to hit over the top. Fundamentally, though, by asking his bowler to throw his bat around royally, Gambhir was only risking a pawn.
Gambhir also flummoxed rivals Bangalore when he used only his pace bowlers to defend a modest score. At the Eden Gardens, Narine has usually been a major force. Kuldeep Yadav has also been superb, and spin was thought to be the main hurdle for Virat Kohli and Co.
But Gambhir had read the conditions superbly. With the pitch allowing enough bounce and seam movement, Kolkata’s pace bowlers, helped by attacking fields set by Gambhir, snuffed out Bangalore for an ignominious score of 49.
This was not the only sub-100 score made by Bangalore this season. Against Rising Pune Supergiant later, they were again spooked while chasing a modest score. Given their much-vaunted batting might, this has been a monumental letdown.
While a stuttering start to the season was understandable given the absence of Kohli and A.B. de Villiers owing to injury, subsequent performances have just made it worse. Bangalore have looked top-heavy and dependent on two-three individuals. In a team sport, that’s an invitation to disaster.
Ayaz Memon is a senior columnist who writes on sports and other matters.