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The Think Tank: Week 1, Bottom 4

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IPL_Indian_Premier_League5) Mumbai Indians

Played 2, Won 1, Lost 1 

Season Results: LW

MI have been involved in two thrilling matches so far: losing v RPS on the last ball and winning v KKR on the penultimate ball. In the second match they were deserved winners, outplaying KKR for most of the match, whereas in the first they were deserved losers: a 30-run 20th over masked the batting failings of the preceding 19 and some poor captaincy resulted in Kieron Pollard bowling the last over. 

MI’s overseas players have been entirely as expected: Jos Buttler, Kieron Pollard and two seam bowlers, with Lasith Malinga replacing Tim Southee as Mitchell McClenaghan’s partner once he had returned from international duty. The main surprise regarding their Indian players was the absence of Harbhajan Singh from the first match, with MI playing an extra batsman and entrusting Krunal Pandya as the frontline spinner. For the second match however, Harbhajan returned in place of the injured Ambati Rayudu and MI’s team looked more balanced. The other Indian players have been Parthiv Patel, Rohit Sharma, Krunal & Hardik Pandya, Nitish Rana and Jasprit Bumrah. 

The primary positive to emerge from the first week for MI has been their death overs hitting. Despite Pollard not looking at his best, MI’s next generation of Indian players, specifically Rana and Hardik, have been supreme, scoring 84 off 57 and 64 off 26 respectively. Against RPS, that hitting elevated MI to a defendable total and against KKR it took them past the target. 

The top of MI’s batting has been less definitive. The decision to open with Buttler is a welcome one. MI have struggled to find an opening combination in recent times. With excellent death overs hitters, they can afford to promote Buttler and seek to maximise his potential in the Powerplay. Parthiv’s continued presence in such a powerful team is puzzling: since the start of last season he has scored at just 6.08 runs per over in the Powerplay and his scoring rate undoes much of the good work of Buttler. When Rayudu returns from injury, if not before, MI should consider leaving Parthiv out and moving Rohit up to open, leaving Buttler to take the gloves. 

MI’s bowling has been hit and miss. In the first match they were let down by Krunal’s inability to fill the role of the fifth bowler (economy rate 10.50) and Pollard’s inability to cover for him (economy rate 16.36) while the rest of the attack fared relatively well (economy rate 8.43). In the second match, with a more balanced attack they did well to tie KKR down for most of their innings but were punished at the death by an excellent innings from Manish Pandey. The return and instant success of Malinga was particularly welcome, underscoring his immense value to the team. 

Moving forward, MI will be expecting Rohit and Pollard to find form and support their young Indian batting. Improved returns from McClenaghan, who has conceded runs at 10.87 runs per over so far, would further tighten the bowling. With Mitchell Johnson and Southee waiting in the wings it won’t take long for his place in the team to be under threat. 

Week Two Fixtures: v SRH (H), v RCB (A), v GL (H)

6) Royal Challengers Bangalore

Played 3, Won 1, Lost 2

Season Results: LWL

This has been a poor start to the season for last season’s finalists, who even when accounting for the losses of Virat Kohli, AB de Villiers and Lokesh Rahul, have played well within their best. They were convincingly beaten by SRH before scrambling to victory against DD thanks in part to some excellent bowling but also some poor batting by their opponents. Most recently they were thrashed by perennial strugglers KXIP after scoring far too few on what eventually proved to be a good batting pitch. 

RCB have already selected an astonishing 16 players in their first three matches, making four changes for the second match and one change for the third match. For their first match they maintained their overseas balance from last season with two overseas batsmen: Chris Gayle and Travis Head (replacing the injured de Villiers), one allrounder (Shane Watson) and one bowler (Tymal Mills). 

For the second match they adjusted that, bringing in a second bowler in Billy Stanlake and dropping Head. For the third match they maintained that structure but the returning de Villiers replaced Gayle in the team. RCB’s Indian players have been Mandeep Singh, Kedar Jadhav, Sachin Baby, Stuart Binny, Sreenath Aravind, Yuzvendra Chahal, Aniket Choudhary, Vishnu Vinod, Pawan Negi and Iqbal Abdulla. 

RCB play their first home matches in the coming week and with Kohli set to return from injury, they can treat this as something of a new beginning and make a fresh start. There are all manner of options that RCB can take from here, but the first and most important decision regards their overseas balance: do they continue to pick two overseas bowlers or return to the formula that they had last season?

De Villiers is a certain starter, and although Watson is in poor form with the bat and has had two bad performances with the ball, the balance he offers the team, and indeed RCB’s conspicuous lack of replacements, mean they should persist with him. Mills also has shown enough promise to continue being picked, although his economy rate of 8.60 is higher than he would like. That leaves one of Gayle, Head, Stanlake, Samuel Badree, Tabraiz Shamsi and Adam Milne for the final overseas spot. Kohli, when fit, obviously plays. So do Jadhav and Chahal. The rest is uncertain.  

If RCB opt for one of Stanlake or Badree over Gayle and Head, then at least one of Mandeep, Baby or Vinod will have to play. How many will depend on whether Binny and Negi plays or just one of them plays. If both of them play, RCB will have a shallow batting order but more bowling options (Chahal, Mills, an overseas bowler, an Indian bowler, Watson, Binny & Negi). 

Given that they’ll be playing two overseas bowlers it could be argued that just one of Binny and Negi needs to play, allowing two of Mandeep, Baby and Vinod to play, thereby strengthening the batting.

If RCB opt for Gayle or Head over Stanlake and Badree, then it is likely that one of the Indian batsmen (Mandeep, Vinod and Baby) and one of the all rounders (Binny and Negi) will play with the final spots being fought over by the Indian bowling options (Chouhdary, Aravind, Patel, Abdullah and Avesh Khan).

The complexity of this selection says a lot about RCB’s predicament. At the end of this second week RCB will almost be halfway through their league matches - they need to find solutions fast or that elusive IPL title will have to wait for another year. 

Week Two Fixtures: v MI (H), v RPS (H), v GL (A)

7) Rising Pune Supergiant

Played 3, Won 1, Lost 2

Season Results: WLL

After an encouraging opening win against MI in their first match, RPS have produced two dismal performances, twice being thrashed by two teams (KXIP and DD) normally considered among the weaker in the league. 

RPS have tried two different team combinations in their first three matches, starting with one overseas batsman (Steve Smith), one overseas all rounder (Ben Stokes) and two overseas bowlers (Imran Tahir and Adam Zampa) before discarding Zampa for a second overseas allrounder (Dan Christian), only to revert to the original plan for their third match. These structural changes betray the weakness of RPS’ squad. 

In the first match, they felt compelled to play two spinners because of the weakness of their bowling attack but then in the second they felt the need to play a second all rounder because their batting order lacks depth. It would not be a surprise for them to eventually play three overseas batsmen either. 

Although Mayank Agarwal’s form is a concern, the batting order is in fact fairly settled with Agarwal, Ajinkya Rahane, Smith, Manoj Tiwary, Stokes and Dhoni making up the top six. A team with a slightly stronger bowling attack might squeeze du Plessis in ahead of one of Agarwal or Tiwary but the problem they are facing is that their bowling attack is so weak they cannot afford to do that.

Tahir, who has taken six wickets at an economy rate of 6.75, must play. Rajat Bhatia, a valuable cricketer, should also start. That leaves three spots, one of them overseas. Choosing Dan Christian compromises the bowling but strengthens the batting while Lockie Ferguson and Zampa would strengthen the bowling but compromises batting depth—something that RPS, with Bhatia at seven or eight, are already dearly lacking.

Two of Ashok Dinda, Ishwar Pandey, Shardul Thakur, Jaydev Unadkat, Deepak Chahar, Rahul Chahar, Ankit Sharma, Jaskaran Singh, Washington Sundar and Saurabh Kumar are the unappealing remaining options. 

Fortunately for RPS, they face two bottom-of-the-table teams up next in GL and RCB, giving them a chance to bounce back after their record defeat v DD. Ultimately, any success that RPS does have is fragile: they have a batting order in which players are well suited to the role they are in but not particularly versatile, while their bowling attack, Tahir-aside, is primarily concerned with minimising damage rather than inflicting it. 

Week Two Fixtures: v GL (A), v RCB (A)

8) Gujarat Lions

Played 2, Won 0, Lost 2

Season Results: LL

This has been a disastrous opening week for GL who have suffered thrashings at the hands of KKR and SRH. They have been unfortunate to come up against arguably the two strongest teams in the league at a time when they have been without their key allrounders Ravindra Jadeja and Dwayne Bravo. But even when considering these absentees, their performances have been woeful. 

Against KKR at least they got half of it right, posting a competitive score before it was bulldozed by Chris Lynn. The same cannot be said of their performance against SRH, when their powerful batting order was gutted by the leg spin of Rashid Khan before their bowling attack meekly surrendered the target. Across 30.2 overs, GL have taken just one wicket and have conceded at 10.68 runs per over. 

GL’s team selection in their first two matches has been fascinating. Rather than bolster the bowling in the absence of Jadeja and Bravo, GL decided to strengthen the batting, playing all four of Brendon McCullum, Jason Roy, Aaron Finch and Dwayne Smith, when many suspected only two or possibly three of them would play. That overseas quartet joined Suresh Raina and Dinesh Karthik to form one of the most formidable batting orders in the IPL. 

There is some merit to this strategy: in the absence of key all rounders GL decided to play to their strength and front-load the batting. Under this strategy, given the weakness of GL’s bowling, the batting has to over-perform to compensate for the bowling. In both matches that hasn’t happened and the bowling has twice meekly surrendered the targets.  

With Jadeja set to return for their next match, GL’s spin bowling which has been made up of the inexperienced duo of Shivil Kaushik and Tejas Baroka, will receive a much-needed boost. Although the return of Jadeja might tempt GL to preserve their existing overseas balance, the bowling has been so poor that it is hard to justify such a decision. One of James Faulkner or Andrew Tye, the latter boasting a superior recent bowling record, should replace Smith or Finch in the team until Bravo returns. The good form of Karthik, who has scored 77 runs off 47 balls in two innings—a lone bright spot, gives additional reason to weaken the batting to strengthen the bowling. 

Perhaps most importantly though, however GL structure their overseas players, it is unlikely to make much different if GL’s Indian bowlers continue to be as poor as they have been. Across two matches, Dhawal Kulknarni, Manpreet Gony and Basil Thampi have conceded runs at 12.67 runs per over across 8.5 overs. That cannot continue if GL are to turn their season around.  

Week Two Fixtures: v RPS (H), v MI (A), v RCB (H)

 

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