1st) Rajasthan Royals
This Week: Played 3, Won 3, Lost 0.
Overall: Played 3, Won 3, Lost 0.
Despite missing their captain Shane Watson, due to injury, RR have been the most impressive team of the first week. Yet again, despite spending very little money and signing no marquee names at the auction, they have built a winning team.
RR are a team that knows how to win and that shone through in narrow victories over KXIP on Friday and DD on Sunday, before they beat MI comfortably on Tuesday. Despite winning all three matches, stand-in captain Steve Smith believes they are yet to play their best cricket, which is both a fair assessment and ominous for the rest of the teams.
Familiarity has bred success for RR with them yet to change their starting XI and yet to lose a match.
The injury to Watson has saved RR from making a difficult choice between one of their clear auction targets Chris Morris and World Cup star Tim Southee; with an extra overseas spot available, both bowlers have played in the three matches.
Prior to the season, the Morris-Southee debate aside, RR only had one clear selection issue: which of Rajat Bhatia, Sagar Trivedi or Deepak Hooda would fill the last all-rounder spot. As it was, RR went for the 19-year old Hooda and their faith in youth has been repaid. Hooda has arguably been RR’s best player across their three matches, proving to be a powerful lower-order hitter and a frugal bowler.
RR have been clinical in their three matches so far and although they have already been pushed hard by both KXIP and DD, we’ll get a better idea of just how good they are when they host CSK this coming Sunday.
The Week Ahead: SRH (Away), CSK (Home), KXIP (Home).
2nd) Chennai Super Kings
This Week: Played 2, Won 2, Lost 0.
Overall: Played 2, Won 2, Lost 0.
Although CSK only beat DD by one run in their opening match, the contest was never really that close. If it wasn’t for Albie Morkel’s batting heroics, CSK would’ve won comfortably despite scoring a below-par total. That match said more about DD than it did about CSK. The same cannot be said of CSK’s second match against SRH where, led by a Brendon McCullum century, they pummelled SRH’s bowling for 209, which proved to be far too many runs to chase.
The only selection issue facing CSK ahead of the season was which overseas batsman would accompany Brendon McCullum at the top of the order. It shouldn't really have been a surprise that they opted for Dwayne Smith, who although in poor form in the World Cup, was so prolific for them in the role last season.
Some concerns have been expressed over the ability of Mahendra Singh Dhoni to still wreak havoc at the end of an innings, after two innings populated by dot balls. It is too early to predict the demise of a great like Dhoni but worries will multiply if such innings occur over the next week, especially given his importance to CSK’s broader strategy.
Twice defending totals, one below-par and one over-par, CSK’s bowling in both matches has generally been impressive. However, it could be said that their death bowling against DD was a little concerning. Finding a death bowler, and indeed an attack leader, has long been CSK’s problem. They could technically select one of their overseas fast bowlers, Kyle Abbott, Matt Henry or Andrew Tye, to try and plug that gap, but doing so would mean dropping Dwayne Smith or Faf Du Plessis, and that would go against the top-heavy strategy they’ve employed for years.
Much like RR, CSK know their best team and they know their strategy.
The Week Ahead: MI (Away), RR (Away), RCB (Away)
3rd) Kolkata Knight Riders
Last Week: Played 2, Won 1, Lost 1.
Overall: Played 2, Won 1, Lost 1.
KKR too are a team attuned to their strategy and accustomed to winning and really only have erroneous fielding to blame for their defeat against RCB on Saturday.
A superb spell of aggressive fast bowling from Morne Morkel to some attacking fields laid the groundwork for KKR’s victory over MI, who once reduced to 37-3 were unable to recover and post a competitive total despite a 131-run partnership for the fourth wicket. Indeed, it’s worth saying that KKR will have been disappointed to not take a wicket after the sixth over, and more disappointed still to have dropped three catches in that period. But MI were, by captain Rohit Sharma’s admission, 15-20 runs short, suggesting KKR’s bowlers did their job well. Although they lost Robin Uthappa early in their run-chase, the calmness with which Gautam Gambhir and Manish Pandey rebuilt is testament to their familiarity of roles in the side. Having been given added responsibility at number four, Suryakumar Yadav’s ebullient 46 provided the fillip to send KKR home.
Against RCB it was KKR’s fielding that was the difference between victory and defeat in the tense, tumultuous encounter. KKR dropped Chris Gayle, whose 96 was ultimately match-winning, twice. Gambhir may perhaps look back with regret on his decision to bowl Yusuf Pathan in the sixteenth over after the first two balls of the over were struck for a four and a six, releasing the pressure of two boundary-less overs preceding it.
It would be harsh to blame KKR’s batting for the defeat but losing two set batsmen, Pandey and Yadav, in consecutive overs broke one of the golden rules of T20 batting.
KKR have chosen to select Andre Russell ahead of Ryan ten Doeschate as their fourth overseas player and that is a decision which was vindicated by his cameo of 41 not out against RCB. Both are excellent and very similar players.
Generally speaking, KKR are confident of their fundamental strategy, and that hasn’t been shown to be flawed in their fixtures so far. It is, however, a strategy that has been founded during the last three seasons on turning pitches in Eden Gardens before Sunil Narine was forced to remodel his action. With three matches away from home ahead and Narine still finding his way with his new action, KKR’s versatility will be put to the test in this coming week.
The Week Ahead: v KXIP (A), v DD (A), v SRH (A).
4th) Delhi Daredevils
This Week: Played 3, Won 1, Lost 2.
Overall: Played 3, Won 1, Lost 2.
After eleven consecutive defeats, DD finally registered a win when they beat KXIP by five wickets on Wednesday. The victory came after two last ball defeats - the first against CSK, by just one run, and the second against RR. While they bowled well against CSK, restricting them to just 150, the one-run margin of defeat flattered DD, who were elevated to competitiveness in their run-chase by a late cameo from Albie Morkel. They only had themselves to blame, adopting a bizarre strategy which saw middle-order lynchpins JP Duminy and Yuvraj Singh batting as low as six and seven. Last season, DD’s biggest error was continually batting Duminy too low and giving him too much to do. It seemed like they were going to be making the same mistake again.
However, the defeat to CSK did seem to act as something of a wake-up call for DD. Although they lost the following match against RR, their strategy was much improved. They dropped CM Gautam, who had opened with Mayank Agarwal in the first match, and gave part-time wicket-keeper Kedar Jadhav the gloves, allowing them to pick the extra batsman, Manoj Tiwary, and shift Shreyas Iyer up to open. Angelo Matthews, unable to play in the first game due to security reasons, also came in for Albie Morkel. But more important than any team changes was DD’s change in strategy. After a strong opening partnership, Duminy came into bat at three followed by Yuvraj at four and Matthews at five. DD were finally affording their best batsmen the chance to face the most number of balls. It was a tactic that worked, as DD posted 184-3 in their 20 overs against RR. Against KXIP, the same strategy was similarly successful when, late stumble aside, they cruised to the target of 166 with both Agarwal and Yuvraj scoring fifties.
It should be said that Duminy has looked far from convincing in his three innings so far. For the majority of his 38-ball 44 against RR he was scoring at less than a run-a-ball and only managed just better than that against KXIP. Although, if Duminy manages to merely anchor the innings, DD do have enough power to make up for a slightly lower strike-rate.
DD have been superb in the bowling department despite missing Mohammad Shami and Zaheer Khan due to injury. They owe their success largely to their spin trio of Amit Mishra, Imran Tahir and Duminy. Nathan Coulter-Nile has led the attack well in the absence of Shami and Zaheer.
Quite how good DD are, or are shaping up to be, this season is difficult to gauge. They were just one loss away from the longest losing-streak in IPL history, and yet were also just a couple of runs short, against both CSK and RR, from three wins out of three this season. Now that they’ve got their strategy right and, more importantly, a win under their belt, it'll be surprising if this season is as disastrous as the last. Their success is fragile, though, with their lower-order relatively untested and their bowling stocks shallow in the absence of Shami and Zaheer.
The Week Ahead: SRH (Away), KKR (Home).
Read about the Bottom Four here.