With nearly one third of the IPL games over, it was time that I thought I wrote little reviews/assessments of the individual franchises. Though Twenty20 appears at first sight to be a game of brainless slam-bam, a second and a third look reveals that there is strategy, team-building, intense professional pride and more than a bit of character and man-management at play. Not to speak of booty shakes, pompoms, hugs and slaps.
[Warning: Long post]
Chennai Super Kings: Having gone for team balance with an eclectic mix of superstar foreign players in both the batting as well as in the bowling department, Chennai Super Kings are deservedly at the top of the table and are clearly the title favoritea.
With an uber-attacker in Hayden, a solidly spectacular presence in Michael Hussey, a reliable batting backup in Stephen Fleming (retired and hence guaranteed to play for the entire season) to exciting all rounders like Jacob Oram and Albie Morkel (dubbed the new Klusener), a tearaway (Ntini) and the greatest off-spinner of all time (Murali), Chennai Super Kings are spoilt for choice when it comes to choosing foreign imports for their team.
However formidable that roster may be, Chennai’s actual strength comes from its Indian personnel —three reliable T20 batsmen in Parthiv, Raina and Badrinath forming their batting core. Not to speak of the most potent weapon of them all: Mahendra Singh Dhoni. Here is a man who understands the T20 game like no other, makes excellent spot decisions, stays cool and agile, and most importantly does not let his batting or glovework suffer due to captaincy. Unlike some “icon” players who have been automatically foisted upon their franchises as captains without having proven themselves first in the format and consequently have embarrassingly underperformed, Dhoni (he officially is not an “icon” player) has, so far, led from the front. This will make it much easier for him to command respect and admiration, especially in not-so-favorable times when tough decisions need to be taken.
Standout Performer: A tie between Michael Hussey and Matthew Hayden. While the former, smarting from being being valued less than his less illustrious brother, showed who is the real champion Hayden has demonstrated once again that he dominates Indian conditions like no other. Given that, it is expected that the departure of these two stellar performers as well Jacob Oram will hit Chennai hit. Not that it doesn’t have players who can step up in their stead.
Weakest Links: If Chennai has a consistent weakness, it is their roster of rather lightweight Indian bowlers. However with Manpreet Gony emerging as an effective presence with the ball, the most jarring part of a Chennai performance is listening to Srikkanth, in the commentary box, saying in his Hindi “Don ko pakarna muskhil he naheen na mumkin hain.”
Delhi Daredevils: India’s historical strength has been its batting. In contrast, our bowling has been like Mithun-da’s sister—easy prey for evil predatory opposition. Given this state of affairs, one way of creating a powerful Twenty20 franchise is to assemble a strong core of young, athletic and aggressive Indian batsmen. This “Indianness” is important because 1) unlike foreign imports, there are no numerical restrictions on them in a team (only four foreign players can be present in a playing XI) and 2) during the tournament, Indian players will not be called away to honor international commitments. This means that the batting core of the team (and consequently the batting line-up) will remain constant throughout the season, without the captain having to worry about international players joining and leaving. In an overwhelmingly batsman-dominated game like T20, the importance of a fixed batting line-up and the consequent determinacy in the roles that different batsmen play in the overall scheme of things cannot be overlooked.
Delhi Daredevils have built their team on this philosophy. Consisting of a powerful “made in India” batting core of Sehwag (India’s most destructive batsman), Gambhir (India’s best T20 batsman), Dhawan, Tiwari and Dinesh Kartik, it leaves Delhi free to use the foreign quota almost entirely in the bowling department —McGrath, Asif, Maharoof and Vettori being four champion performers in the ranks who can be simultaneously deployed if needed, without having to worry about cutting back on batting power.
Of course this means that the Daredevil’s bowling line-up is susceptible to “player flight” but with McGrath a retiree and the other three bowlers from three different countries, chances are high that all three of them will not be absent at the same time. However the support cast of bowlers that will be exposed once any two of Asif, Maharoof and Vettori leave may be a serious chink in the Daredevil’s armor.
It is to be noted that the Daredevils have not let their batting line-up go unbuttressed. With Shoaib Malik, Dilshan and A B De Villiers (all “export quality” Twenty20 players without the trappings of superstardom and the price tag that comes with it) imported from outside, they have a strategic bank of batsmen whom they can use effectively as needed, but whose presence the team is not inordinately dependent on.
Standout Performer: With due respect to Sehwag and Gambhir’s destructive batting and Dhawan and Mahroof’s consistency, the standout performer so far has been McGrath. Resembling a mean-spirited Swiss matchmaker, he has bowled with inhuman precision and with subtle variations, grumbling away to himself endearingly when, once in a while, he has been hit for a boundary. Perfection, as they say, is ageless.
Weakest Links: Akshay Kumar as brand ambassador making benign stunts appear “dare devil”. The supposedly “spectacular” team unveiling where the players are choreographed standing with their backs to the audience, apparently peeing on the wall in a team building exercise, while Akshay Kumar shadow-bats. [Video]
Lame. Very lame.
Rajasthan Royals: In sports, everybody loves an underdog story. I wonder who is writing the script for Rajasthan Royals. Apparently the weakest team on paper, this franchise through sheer perseverance, team spirit and a never-say-die attitude has captured the attention and loyalty of most of the “undecided” IPL fans.
Like the protagonists of most underdog sports stories, the Royals started with an embarrassing drubbing. A clearly match-unfit, pot-bellied Darren Lehman ambling about the field was emblematic of the Royals’ team problems and captain Shane Warne also put in a listless performance, as if he was on a date with his wife. Things turned around in the second match however with Warne putting in a devilishly crafty performance, looking as robust as enthused as if on the way to a threesome with two fetching models. Passed over for the captaincy of Australia due to his penchant for controversy, Warne seems intent on showing to his doubters what Australia has missed. Whether it be taking caught and bowleds or hitting two amazing sixes off Symonds in the last over to bring off an almost impossible win against a far superior team or simply lifting the gigantic Yousuf Pathan after a post-victory huddle, Shane Warne has been a fireball of energy and inspiration. He has got able support from Shane Watson, Yousuf Pathan and old Warne rival Graeme Smith as well as little-known names like Under 19 Ravindra Jadeja who in a course of a pulse-racing cameo got spectacularly stuck into Brett Lee.
Another big plus for the Royals is that, from what I understand, they have no players from the current Australian, New Zealand or West Indies squad and hence will not lose any players in the coming weeks due to international commitments.
Standout Performer: Shane Warne. And Ila Arun for her “Ar har har” Rajasthan Royals theme song which, in its supreme irritation-inducing ability, must be getting on the opponent’s nerves as it is played between overs.
Weakest Links: Mohammed Kaif, an expensive buy, has been a gigantic disappointment so far. And one must never forget that not all fairy tales have a happy ending.
Deccan Chargers: What could be wrong with an army that has Gilchrist (available throughout the season), Afridi, Symonds, Gibbs, Rohit Sharma and VVS Laxman in its cavalry and a “made for T20 player” like Scott Styris (also a retiree and available throughout the season) as backup?
Plenty. That is if the performance of the Deccan Chargers in the initial exchanges are to be believed. The problem with the Chargers has been their total lack of team balance. Taking the axiom “T20 is a batsman’s game” to an unreasonable extreme, their almost single-minded focus has been to pack their squad with the most destructive batsmen that money can buy. In the process, they have woefully neglected investing in a varied bowling attack to the point that an inordinate amount of faith had been put in the bowling talents of their most prized acquisition, Symonds (that too at the death of an innings) —an expectation Symonds has, to put it mildly, found tough to live up to.
What this lack of balance additionally has done is put an enormous amount of pressure on the batting. In order for the Chargers to win, their batting stars need to put in superhuman performances (like Gilchrist did in the game against the Mumbai Indians) to cover up for their lack of bowling prowess. While it has to be said that the batting lineup is powerful enough to consistently muscle all opposition, against the really well-balanced teams on the days that none of the batting stars put in a defining performance, Deccan Chargers may have more than a bit of a problem.
Standout Performer: Symonds with the bat. And Gilchrist against Mumbai.
Weakest Links: Symonds with the ball. I will accept that the sight of Symond’s face after he was taken apart by Sehwag and then Warne was…for the want to a better phrase…mighty pleasing.
Kings XI Punjab: A squad well-balanced in every respect, with an almost ideal mix of batsmen, bowlers and all-rounders ,both Indian and foreign, (not to speak of modern cricket’s best brain—Sangakara ) Kings XI Punjab have made fairly heavy weather of their initial games. While much of it has been because of bad luck and the random nature of the competition, some of it may have been due to management decisions that negatively affected team morale and unity.
When the rumor started circulating that franchise owner Priety Zinta was reserving her post-match hugs for superstars like Brett Lee, depriving the lesser lights from a chestlock, my first reaction was a “What will people think of next!” ( Related trivia: Ms. Zinta had previously accused Shiney Ahuja of hugging her too hard during the shooting of a film) While this may be true (or not) and in any case Priety Zinta has ever right to be selective in distributing her jadoo ki jhappis, the story had a subtext of discrimination between the “elite players” and the others.
Then the second story, more believable, broke. It seems that the entire team had initially been lodged in the swanky Taj in Mohali. However when Priety Zinta’s star friends came a-visiting, she made a part of the squad (the less privileged ones including promising Punjab player Gagandeep Singh) move out of the hotel into “bargain-basement” accommodation. Ms. Zinta then issued a denial saying that none of the “real” players were moved, but yes some “trainees” had indeed been relocated.
However I am sure that Ms. Zinta has since realized the error of her ways and as of the last match, it was reported that Priety was spreading her hugs more democratically. [Now this is where she is so different from SRK, he would never have to be told explicitly to hug every player of his team.] Whether that translates into more consistent performances for the Kings XI however remains to be seen.
Standout Performer: Not surprisingly, it has been Brett Lee.
Weakest Links: Sreesanth who again, not surprisingly, substituted performance for unprovoked snarling and abusing —targeting Yousuf Pathan and Kamran Akmal. Bullies are usually the biggest cowards themselves and this was proven once again as Sreesanth started crying like a baby, once he got slapped around by an even bigger bully.
Kolkata Knight Riders: Korbo, Lorbo, Jitbo has at the time of writing become a “Amader daabi maante hobe” (Our demands must be met —a favorite slogan of Bengal’s militant workforce) as the much-touted Knight Riders have magically morphed, perhaps imbibing some of the local oxygen, into a CITU (the Communist trade union’s) committee of disgruntled laborers for whom performance is a 4-letter word.
When the team for the Knight Riders was announced, I wrote an angry post that lampooned Shahrukh Khan and the squad selection hinting that there may be non-cricketing reasons at play for this assemblage of players. Now I provide a rationale for my initial pessimism.
First of all, the geniuses at the Knight Riders paid good legal tender to buy Shoaib Akthar. Cricketingwise, the decision made no sense— Shoaib is in the twilight of his career and his stubborn refusal to bowl anything but express pace to satisfy his own ego makes no T20 sense on Indian pitches. Most importantly, when one is trying to build a team out of people who have never played before, having someone as arrogant, unpredictable, violent and so-full-of-himself as Akthar was a recipe for disaster.
In perhaps the only good break Shahrukh Khan got, Shoaib was banned in the process doing the franchise a gigantic favor.
And that was not the only bad decision. While building up a corpus of players, the Knight Riders have created a core of Indian bowlers (Ishant, Agarkar, Murali Kartik) and then relied almost exclusively on foreign imports for their batting backbone. In other words, the exact opposite principle to the one followed by the Delhi Daredevils. While Ishant is a great person to have in your team and Murali Kartik (who ranks after Kumble, Harbhajan and Piyush Chawla in the list of Indian spinners) a debatable presence, paying anything above Rs 101 to get Agarkar, inconsistent at best and execrable at worst, makes no sense.
An even bigger mistake was that the administration did not pursue a single top Indian T20 batsman. [Cheteshwara Pujara, Yashpal Sharma and Akash Chopra are, on current reputation, not a patch on Rohit Sharma, Robin Uthappa, Gautam Gambhir or even Tiwari, Parthiv, Yousuf Pathan and Raina.] Instead, foreign players with questionable T20 credentials like Taibu and Mr. Butt were brought in.
Then of course, SRK had more than a slice of rotten luck , perhaps God compensating for the largesses heaped upon the Khan throughout his life.
Gayle got injured.
Ricky Ponting (or as he is now known, Kaliyug Ka Manoj Kumar as captured in the picture on the left in an “India” T-shirt —courtesy The Telegraph), less worried about his own form and more concerned about how low his compensation was, went on to show how vastly overvalued he really was—-on the strength of his performances, he wasn’t even worth the price of an extra for one hour’s work in a Sukhen Das flick.
McCullum played one innings of stupendous worth and then fell away, being pretty ordinary behind the stumps too.
David Hussey showed why he will always remain on the fringes and never be a spot on his brother, Michael.
Mohammed Hafeez flattered to deceive.
And Sourav Ganguly–we shall talk about him later.
Will buying another “never quite there” player like Brad Hodge help? Your guess is as good as mine.
It’s not that the Knightriders don’t have the muscle to go the full distance. With the fringe players performing out of their skins, all that is needed are the premium players to step up to the plate. But that alas has not been happening.
Standout Performer: Who would have thought that in a team comprising of “mega-stars” , the standout performers would be local catchment players—-people who I presume have been bought for the least amount. I am talking about Wriddhiman Saha, Laxmiratan Shukla, Debabrata Das and A B Dinda who have each played many levels above themselves showing a lot of character while the well-paid fatcats have been content to clap hands, shout encouragements and under-perform.
Weakest Links: The obvious answer would be Ricky “the smartass” Ponting. But the real weak link, in my opinion, has regrettably been Dada. Occupying key batting positions, he has neither succeeded in anchoring the innings and rotating the strike nor in playing breezy cameos. The contrast in his performances with those of other captains like Yuvraj, Sehwag and Dhoni do tell a story.
To be honest, Ganguly’s performance so far has been an embarrassment. And I say this as a long time fan.
Bangalore Royal Challengers: The second most expensive franchise in the league, Bangalore Royal Challengers problems began the day Rahul Dravid, their icon player, based his squad selection on the principle of “A good Test player can play any version of the game” creating a line-up of stodgy, joyless, technically correct, emotionally mature batsmen for whom Twenty20 means 20 runs in 20 overs
Then in the second round of the draft, Vijay Mallaya himself stepped in supposedly and picked up some entertainers—some real T20 players like Misbah-Ul-Haq and the Royal Challengers added more than a modicum of respectability to their squad. Finally, in a desperate bid to spray yet another little bit of coolness to a very unexciting team, cheerleaders were imported all the way from Washington DC.
Straight away, these lissome lasses exhibited more bounce and bustle than the cricket players.
Watching the Bangalore Royal Challengers has been like drinking a Kingfisher beer that had gone flat. Sunil Joshi looks like he just came out from a geriatric care facility, Anil Kumble appeared bored and disinterested as he opened his IPL campaign with two cringeworthy longhops (each dispatched for four) and promptly landed on the bench in the next game, Dravid looks like he hasn’t been having good bowel movement for a few weeks now. Some of the selection decisions have also been totally senile—-like keeping Misbah-ul-Haq on the bench so that Kallis could play. This is all the pity because Bangalore has a fairly good line-up of bowlers, which would have been even better had Nathan Bracken being playing. Now if the batsmen could just give them a bit of support.
Standout Performer: Boucher in one game. And Wasim Jaffer in another. The very fact that Wasim Jaffer is one of your standout performers in a T20 game, puts the efficacy of rest of the lineup in perspective.
Weakest Link: Rahul Dravid. Stagnant at the top for the first few games, against Chennai he tried to hide himself at the bottom. No luck, as even here he got out first ball.
Mumbai Indians : The most expensive franchise of the IPL, it had , till the match against Kolkata, become the “RGV Ki Aag” of all IPL teams—a total train wreck. With the main headliner yet to make an appearance, the stand-in captain banned for the rest of the tournament for slapping an opponent, their hapless coach unfairly fined 50% of his match fees for not stepping in between the slapper and the slapee and the team at the bottom of the table, the only good thing the Mumbai team had going for them was that they still had not played the Knight Riders.
Noone knows who exactly made the decisions when it came to selecting players for the franchise but when one sees Ashish Nehra, long forgotten fast bowler who would, on current form, struggle to make an India B team, spearheading the attack you have to wonder “What were they thinking?” Of course the problem began when Harbhajan Singh was bought at a price way higher than what he deserved, money that could have been better spent on a couple of international quality pace bowlers.
The marquee pair of Sachin and Sanath is undoubtedly a dream pairing—but only if you are stuck in a time bubble in the mid and late 90s. Shaun Pollock still has it in him to lead from the front but he needs support from Uthappa, Nayar and Bravo, a late purchase who has been worth his weight in gold.
Standout Performer: Robin Uthappa has looked solid in most of Mumbai’s encounters. Against Kolkata, his partnership with Bravo was a critical performance under pressure—-the kind that makes a team believe in itself once again.
Weakest Link: Ashish Nehra and Luke Ronchi. The second has been dropped and the first one —I don’t think we will be seeing no more.
And that concludes the team reviews.
Of course such is the nature of the T20 game that the mighty can stumble, all cricketing logic can be thrown to the wolves, Dravid can blast a 50 ball hundred, Dada can have a 200 strike rate, Shahrukh Khan can hire the female Shoaib Akthar Urooj Mumtaz to give the side a lift, Priety Zinta’s hugs can work wonders (as Sivaramakrishnan, the great sage, said of T20 ” It’s a hard man’s game —that’s why it is professional), Deccan Chargers can break all conceivable T20 batting records, the form book can radically change and the cheerleaders can revert to their original attire.
I, for one, will be hoping that all this happens.
For entertainment’s sake.