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IPL 2015 Week Four: The Think Tank: Top Four

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1st) Chennai Super Kings

This Week: Played 3, Won 1, Lost 2.

Overall: Played 10, Won 7, Lost 3.

CSK bounced back from consecutive defeats against KKR and then SRH to beat RCB on Monday, and now stand just one victory away from what will certainly be enough points for their eighth consecutive top-four finish.

CSK’s two defeats exposed short-comings in different departments, but thankfully they were short-comings exposed in snap moments, rather than prolonged periods of play, and can be explained by poor-decision making and errors in execution as much as deep strategic flaws.

More encouragingly for CSK, although they lost two matches, neither can really have been said to have been lost due to the absence of their key spin bowler Ravichandran Ashwin, whose injury forced CSK to make the first change to their starting XI of the season when they brought in left-arm spinning all-rounder Pawan Negi. CSK opted to make a second change for their match against KKR, dropping Ishwar Pandey for medium-pace bowler Ronit More. However, it wasn't the bowling that was the problem against KKR, it was the batting. After five overs batting first CSK were 64-2, but they proceeded to lose two wickets in the sixth over, starting a run of five overs in which CSK scored just 24 runs and lost three wickets. Given their position after five overs a calmer approach could have been safer and still seen CSK to an imposing total. Coach Stephen Flemining, speaking after the match admitted CSK did score “too fast” in the first six overs and that they lost “too much resource” in the Powerplay. “We lost wickets when you’d have just liked to have been two down at the end of the Powerplay. If you’ve got 70 runs and you’re two down you’re in a pretty good spot.” Defending a below-par total was never going to be easy and KKR chased the runs with ease.

It was CSK’s bowling against SRH that was the more concerning aspect of their performance. After winning the toss and putting SRH into bat the SRH ended the Powerplay 76-0. “The first six overs was where the match was won and lost,” said Fleming afterwards. “They had an outstanding first six overs, and we know the impact of that, because we’ve done it in this competition. Whenever you go for around 70 in the Powerplay you're always going to go for a big score. The game sort of found its pattern for the rest of their innings. And if you look at the splits we scored 53 [in the Powerplay] which is the difference between the win and the loss.” Arun Venugopal offered an interesting analysis of the reason for CSK’s inability to stem the flow of runs in the Powerplay on ESPNcricinfo when he said that during the first six overs MS Dhoni was making reactive decisions that weren’t necessarily responding to the problem at hand. While Ashish Nehra and Mohit Sharma have both bowled well this season, their form has tailed off more recently and there is certainly an argument that CSK would’ve benefitted from taking some pace off the ball in the Powerplay by turning to one of their spinners. Indeed, as soon as the Powerplay was over, Suresh Raina bowled, and he took a wicket.

CSK returned to winning ways against RCB when their total of 148-9 batting first, led by a Raina fifty, proved too many for RCB on a sluggish pitch. The return to form for Raina, scoring only his second fifty of the season, was pleasing. But more importantly for CSK, Nehra returned to form following three so-so matches, taking 3-19 from his four overs. Pandey, who replaced More in the team, also bowled well taking 2-28 from his four overs. Dwayne Bravo’s death bowling continues to be superb and he finished with 2-17 from 3.4 overs. Two excellent pieces of fielding instigated two crucial run-outs in RCB’s chase. It was a very CSK-style win in an important match following two consecutive defeats.

Looking forward, CSK perhaps face a difficult decision when Ashwin returns to fitness and is available for selection given that Negi has impressed in his three outings so far. Ashwin will certainly return to the team but given that Negi is a left-arm spinner who has also played three nice cameos with the bat there is a possibility that Ravindra Jadeja’s poor form could see him squeezed out of the team by Negi who is a very similar player. Dropping a player of Jadeja’s experience who has played such an integral role in CSK’s success over the years would be unlike the CSK-management, and given their relative success despite Jadeja’s poor form this season perhaps unnecessary. But saying that, if CSK think they can gain an advantage by picking Negi and dropping Jadeja, then they shouldn’t hesitate in doing so.

The Week Ahead: MI (Home), RR (Home), DD (Away).

2nd) Rajasthan Royals

This Week: Played 2, Won 1, Lost 1.

Overall: Played 11, Won 6, Lost 3, NR 2.

After last week’s poor fortune that saw two of RR’s matches lost to rain, things got worse for RR at the beginning of Week Four when they narrowly fell short in a tough run-chase against MI. Their second match of the week against mid-table DD then took on great importance and although they didn’t play their best cricket they found a way to win. RR are on 14 points and are one win away from a Play Off berth, but with three tough fixtures remaining a top-four finish is not guaranteed for a team who have totally lost the momentum provided by five consecutive wins at the start of the season.

Last week this column suggested that RR shouldn’t make drastic changes to their team, largely because their momentum had been lost as much because of poor weather than poor performances. However, RR did in fact make two substantial changes to their starting XI for their first match of the week against MI. The first change they made was to drop James Faulkner who had suffered a slight dip in form for overseas bowler Juan Theron - a move that slightly shifted the balance of their team given that Theron is not as good a batsman as Faulkner. The second move was to drop Pravin Tambe, whose poor form was discussed in this column last week, for Ankit Sharma. Dropping Tambe was a surprise given how successful the leg-spinner has been for RR in the past, but on the day itself Sharma plugged the gap nicely, taking 1-29 from his four overs. Less justified was the decision to leave out Faulkner whose absence was felt keenly in the closing overs of both innings. Faulkner has been RR’s go-to death bowler and without him the final four overs of MI’s innings went for 13, 20, 16 and 12. MI’s total of 187-5 was a tough target but certainly not impossible at the Wankhede Stadium. RR’s reputation as one of the best teams for young players was enhanced by the decision to bat Sanju Samson, terribly out of form at the time, to number three in the order. And the risk was rewarded as Samson led RR’s chase excellently, scoring 76 from just 46 balls. However with none of their lower-order hitters able to find any traction and Faulkner’s finishing abilities certainly missed, RR fell just short.

For their second match of the week against DD, RR correctly recalled Faulkner to the side but continued to leave Tambe out even though they chose to drop Sharma - calling Rajat Bhatia into the team for his first match of the season. While it is admirable that RR are testing the depth of their squad you could argue they are experimenting just that little bit too much with a team that shouldn’t really be meddled with. Bhatia bowled just two overs. Anyhow, RR managed to win the match against DD by 14 runs to bolster their position in the top-half of the table. Led by Ajinkya Rahane whose role as an anchor this season has been played superbly, they scored a strong 189-2 batting first. Rahane has been found guilty of failing to accelerate from steady starts in the past, but against DD he elevated his strike rate in the second half of his innings from 127 to 216 in masterful fashion. In another triumph for RR’s youth policy the promotion of Karun Nair to number three, as it did for Samson, worked wonders - Nair scored a 38-ball 61. The target of 189 was probably going to be too many for a volatile DD batting order, and so it was. RR collected wickets at regular intervals and although DD got within 14 runs of victory, the margin flatters a chase that never really got going with Faulkner taking 2-22 from his four overs to further emphasise the folly of dropping a player of his quality. However, the death bowling of Dhawal Kulkarni and Tim Southee was concerning and RR may well consider recalling Chris Morris who has bowled some good overs at the end of the innings this season.

The two main areas of concern for RR are the death bowling and also the batting form of Stuart Binny and Deepak Hooda, neither of whom have had enough crease-time of late. While they can both be decent ball-strikers if they haven’t been playing under pressure conditions it is hard to expect too much of them and there does then seem to be a lack of real brute power in the lower-order. Even against DD when RR were in a strong position with wickets in hand it wasn’t as if there was an obvious candidate, a Kieron Pollard or a Yusuf Pathan, who demanded a promotion, to come and push RR from the strong into the spectacular. Faulkner is a serious ball-striker but he’s not a frontline batsman.

Looking ahead RR need just one win to make it to the Play Off stage but must play SRH on a spicy Brabourne Stadium pitch before travelling to CSK and hosting KKR. The core of RR’s team and their predominant strategy should remain fairly settled. They played excellent cricket in the first five matches and can largely blame unfortunate weather for a loss of momentum and form. RR should be fine to finish in the top four, but given their proclivity to fiddle and adjust arguably unnecessarily, don’t be surprised if they make their qualification harder and more confusing than it needs to be.

The Week Ahead: SRH (Home*), CSK (Away).

*RR’s ‘home’ match against SRH will be played at the Brabourne Stadium in Mumbai.

3rd) Royal Challengers Bangalore

This Week: Played 3, Won 2, Lost 1.

Overall: Played 10, Won 5, Lost 4, NR 1.

Despite losing to CSK this week, RCB have now won four of their last five matches and are in a good position to qualify for the Play-Off stage. Both RCB and KKR are in the same position with two wins required from their remaining four matches. Historically RCB have often underwhelmed and underperformed and in this sense it would not be surprising to see them either make a mess of their qualification or not qualify at all, but with their remaining fixtures, their personnel and considering that they seem to have settled on a stable strategy with clearly defined roles it would be a shame if they didn’t capitalise on this opportunity.

RCB began their week with a victory over KKR in a rain-reduced match. While the rain condensing the match to only ten overs-a-side and winning the toss to chase certainly favoured RCB, a match of that sort is just the kind of opportunity that they would've missed in seasons gone-by. And while it is difficult to read too much into a ten-over contest, that RCB actually found a way to win a difficult and tense match perhaps suggests that this season’s RCB have something those of the past did not. Indeed, given that they have managed to drag themselves out of the dirty scrap for fourth place into one in which they have their fortune in their own hands, is thanks largely to this victory over KKR in a match they weren’t expected to win.

RCB will be frustrated that they didn’t replicate such a plucky performance against CSK. After bowling well to restrict CSK to 148-9 on an admittedly sluggish pitch, two costly run-outs and a lack of responsibility from some experienced players saw them fall short by 24 runs. “Losing this game, particularly after doing so well with the ball hurts a little,” said Harshal Patel after the match. It should be said though that both run outs were as much down to CSK brilliance as RCB ineptitude and it can be said that CSK won the match as much as RCB lost it.

RCB’s handling of Chris Gayle this season has been interesting and he was left out of the defeat against CSK, allegedly resting, with Nic Maddinson, who scratched around for a seven-ball 4 taking his place. They brought Gayle back for the match against bottom-of-the-table KXIP and perhaps his absence from the last game had fired him up. Gayle’s outrageous 117 surged RCB to the highest score of the season. Their total of 226-3 batting first, with Gayle assisted by an AB de Villiers fifty, was far too many for an out-of-form KXIP who crumbled for just 88. Encouragingly, Sreenath Aravind who had taken the place of Iqbal Abdulla in the team, took four wickets, while Mitchell Starc’s scintillating form continued, with him also taking four wickets. Aravind and Harshal, who has also been bowling brilliantly recently, add great depth to RCB’s bowling which has historically been their far weaker suit.

Strategically RCB look very nicely settled. They’ve generally stuck well to their top three of Gayle, unless he is being rested, Virat Kohli and de Villiers, who are setting the platform nicely for Mandeep Singh, Dinesh Karthik and Sarfaraz Khan. Kohli looked quite scratchy against KXIP and concerns have been raised over his strike-rate this season, which is only hovering around the 120 mark. However, as Rahane has shown for RR there is a place for an anchor role and Kohli should look to play that for RCB. With de Villiers batting higher up the order the middle-order is inevitably going to look a bit weaker, but in batting de Villiers at three RCB are giving it the best chance to succeed. It would be great to see Karthik, who RCB paid a lot of money for at auction, following the lead of Mandeep, who played brilliantly in the run-chase against KKR, and finding some form - he’s scored just 93 runs so far this season. Such fine details may be the difference between a top four finish or not.

Looking ahead and looking at the table, RCB’s match away to MI on Sunday takes on huge importance. Although RCB are above KKR on net run rate, KKR rarely falter at this stage of the season, and it is likely RCB and MI will be the main two protagonists in the struggle for fourth place. Their second match of the week against KXIP should be won but RCB cannot afford to be complacent.

The Week Ahead: MI (Away), KXIP (Away).

4th) Kolkata Knight Riders

This Week: Played 3, Won 2, Lost 1.

Overall: Played 10, Won 5, Lost 4, NR 1.

Two strong wins for KKR, the first against CSK and the second against SRH, have put them in a good position to qualify for the Play-Off stage with two wins required from their remaining four matches.

In KKR’s other match this week, sandwiched by their two victories, they lost to RCB in a rain-reduced match. Looking at the table now that defeat takes on greater significance with RCB’s victory against KXIP elevating them above KKR in the table. KKR were unfortunate though; the rain enhanced RCB’s chances by condensing the time-scale of the match and losing the toss ensured RCB could chase in a ten-over match which is a definite advantage. From KKR’s point of view it’s difficult to read too much into the defeat. It may yet however, be a result which carries significance carrying forward; that is the capricious nature of T20 cricket.   

The week began for KKR with the news that their fulcrum and match-winning bowler Sunil Narine has been banned from bowling his off-spinner in the IPL after his action for the delivery was deemed illegal following a bio-mechanical test in Chennai. While the loss of Narine is certainly a blow to KKR, he hasn’t looked quite the same bowler since he was forced to remodel his action after being banned in the Champions League T20 last October. It is testament to KKR’s planning and stability that they have seemingly been able to replace Narine so easily. Brad Hogg was specifically purchased at auction with an eye on Narine’s suspect action and he has been a revelation in his four matches so far, taking 8 wickets at an economy rate of 6.21. While this column expressed concerns over Hogg’s control as a leg-spinner, no such problems have been evident this week and he has in fact posed more of a threat than Narine was.

KKR’s two victories in the past week, against CSK and SRH, saw their spin-loaded strategy dominate on drier, worn pitches. First they kept CSK to a below par total batting first before they choked SRH’s chase of 167-7 to win by 35 runs. Given that both KKR’s matches this coming week are at home on the spin-friendly Eden Gardens pitch, and that the Final will be played there too, it appears that once again, KKR are peaking and perfecting at just the right time.

KKR made just one personnel change during their three matches when Pat Cummins, who mysteriously replaced Morne Morkel for the first of the back-to-back CSK matches, was dropped for Johan Botha on a turning pitch for KKR’s match against SRH at Eden Gardens. The dropping of Morkel for Cummins at the end of last week remains the only confusing thing about an otherwise admirably settled and excellently balanced KKR team. Last week Morkel appeared to suggest, albeit jokingly, that he had been dropped for his fielding, but when Morkel offers so much with the ball, that seems strange. Given that Cummins took one wicket at an economy rate of 9.70 from his three matches, it would be a huge surprise if he was selected again. Indeed, looking forward, KKR’s fourth overseas player after Andre Russell, Ryan ten Doeschate and Brad Hogg, should simply be one of Botha or Morkel based on conditions.

The Week Ahead: DD (Home), KXIP (Home).

Read about the Bottom Four HERE.



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Freddie Wilde is a freelance T20 journalist @fwildecricket....

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