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Pune is rising

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Ben_Stokes_England_IPL_CricketWith Chennai Super Kings and Rajasthan Royals facing suspension following the fixing scandal, two new teams were born, one of which was the RPSG Group-owned Rising Pune Supergiants. A 7th place finish in the debut season, managing just 9 points from 14 games, called for chopping and changing and reinvention. This is exactly how their 2nd season began.

A change in the guard, splashing cash at the auction and a change in the name in accordance with numerology and astrology. This is how the events lined up for Rising Pune Supergiant ahead of their second, and probably last, season in the IPL.

Steve Smith had taken over from MS Dhoni as the skipper of the side. 

They were up against their arch rivals in their season opener. In that edition of the Maharashtra Derby, Supergiant earned the bragging rights thanks to their star players Ajinkya Rahane and Steve Smith, despite Mumbai taking their bowlers to the cleaners. Though the Supergiant managed to register a convincing win, there were still certain aspects the coaching staff would have wanted to look into.

Their bowling in the powerplay and at the death and left a lot to be desired and very clearly needed an upgrade. The team rang in a few changes in the next game. Zampa made way for the much more experienced Dan Christian and Rahul Chahar came in for Deepak Chahar. 

This time around, though, their batting didn’t fire on all cylinders. With a relatively weaker bowling line-up, they bowed down to Kings XI Punjab. 

There was still a lot of revamping the team needed and further changes were made for the next game. Even so, they had to settle for yet another defeat, and a big one at that, at the hands of the Delhi Daredevils. Their bowling was questionable again while their batting was suffering again. 

They couldn’t get the starts and with Rahane lacking an aggressive partner who could make use of the powerplay, he too was falling prey to his own pace of scoring. A new experiment was attempted. The highly rated Rahul Tripathi, who had been making noise in the domestic circuit, was asked to open with Rahane in a bid to provide the added impetus at the top. 

 

While the Tripathi experiment worked successfully – he made a 30+ score at a strike rate of close to 200 – their bowling experiments still were a cause of concern as they were handed another heavy defeat by the Gujarat Lions. Even the likes of foreign recruit Lockie Ferguson couldn’t make much of an impact and went wicketless, giving away runs at 11 an over. Multiple combinations had been tried, but nothing seemed to have worked for them there. But things took a turn next game onwards. 

The Supergiant went with the bowling line-up of Shardul Thakur, Jaydev Unadkat, Dan Christian, Ben Stokes and Imran Tahir. Unadkat and Thakur took the responsibility with the new ball while Stokes controlled affairs in the middle phase and at the death along with Unadkat, who would make the most of his slower deliveries and variations. Tahir was used to break partnerships, while Christian curtailed the run scoring in the middle overs. 

A win against Royal Challengers Bangalore, defending 162, was a big feat for a team that had been worrying about their bowling. If this was being mistaken for Bangalore’s poor batting form, there were further testimonials for Pune’s resurgence. They won 7 of their next 8 games with their only loss coming to Kolkata Knight Riders.

With Rahul Chahar being the unused bowler in their win against Bangalore, that opened door for the Pune think-tank to make one last experiment. The Supergiant included Washington Sundar in the line-up, realizing a lot of the batsmen love pace on the bat in the initial overs. Sundar was a spinner who could bowl in the powerplay and had control. They now had another weapon for the initial overs alongside Thakur and Unadkat.

Alongside Stokes, Unadkat proved to be a revelation for the Supergiant. The youngster bowled magnificently at the death, an area of grave concern earlier, and chipped in with wickets. Stokes too got the odd wicket as and when needed, and RPS excelled as a bowling unit.

Now while the bowling took shape, there were fine adjustments being made in the batting department too. While Tripathi was assigned the role of the aggressor, Rahane was asked to play anchor, failing which Smith might take up that role. The likes of Manoj Tiwary, Stokes and Dhoni were used mainly as finishers and builders as and when needed.

As things panned out, Pune win another of their games in the last two and with 9 wins, finished 2nd on the table with 18 points.

Pune’s journey has been a classic example of making the best use of limited resources and planning out exact roles for each player. And while the players get credit for doing their roles well, the think-tank needs to be credited too, for turning out a magnificent team with limited resources at disposal.

But problems seem to be coming in again now with the departure of Ben Stokes. There is no proper replacement for the Englishman anywhere in the world, and even less so with the Pune squad. It would be interesting to see what the think-tank comes up with, considering they have known for a long time that this would happen, and would have planned in advance.

 

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