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IPL 2015 Week One: The Think Tank - Bottom Four


IPL_Indian_Premier_League5th) Kings XI Punjab

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

Overall: Played 3, Won 1, Lost 2.

After just three matches, KXIP look alarmingly short of the zing and pizzaz that carried them to the final so emphatically last season. Even in their victory over MI they seemed unconvincing, with George Bailey hauling them to a competitive total before their bowling attack was taken apart by Harbhajan Singh and Jagadeesha Suchith in the final quarter of the match.

KXIP were admittedly unfortunate to come up against a very strong RR side on Friday, a day when they themselves played very well. Against both MI and DD they played well in patches. However, looking back, it is hard to shake the feeling that their success of last season was built on the back of the spectacular form of a number of individuals, Glenn Maxwell and David Miller in particular, both of whom have struggled so far this season.

The management have opted to pair Virender Sehwag with Murali Vijay rather than the young Manan Vohra who succeeded in the role last season. Vijay is a less explosive player than Vohra, but still positive. He and Sehwag have provided KXIP with a couple of strong, but not sensational, starts so far. Vijay’s role as something of an anchor will certainly be enhanced if Sehwag can rediscover his top-form, but if not then KXIP should consider bringing Vohra back in and some brighter starts could alleviate pressure from the middle-order.

How to handle an out of form Maxwell is difficult - something that the Melbourne Stars grappled with all season long in the BBL - given that even when in bad form he doesn't waste many balls. It is perhaps best to plan as if he is going to fail, perhaps entrusting George Bailey with different roles and responsibilities pre-match as a result.

KXIP have only played three games and there will only be so long that Maxwell and Miller can continue to fail, but that time hasn't arrived yet and worrying about it coming will only likely hasten it. Maxwell and Miller thrive on freedom and its crucial KXIP continue to give that to them.

KXIP have been good in the first half of their bowling innings, with Sandeep Sharma and Anureet Singh bowling frugally with the new ball before Mitchell Johnson comes into the attack and bowls with aggression and hostility. However, the attack has been less effective as the innings has worn on, with both RR and MI scoring heavily in the latter overs. Generally, Sandeep bowls his four straight through, while Johnson has bowled later than the sixteenth over only once. This leaves Anureet, Rishi Dhawan and Axar Patel to bowl at the death. Essentially, KXIP are short of depth. Last season their attack was more of an unknown quantity, and their batting gave them more runs to play with. On the bench they have no standout alternative options: Parvinder Awana and Karanveer Singh are no more than useful, and Beuran Hendricks is there as an overseas bowler, but Johnson isn’t the problem.

KXIP may already be looking back at the auction and regret not signing an additional bowler.

With two defeats already, this coming week could be a season-defining one for KXIP with KKR at home before facing RR away.

The Week Ahead: KKR (Home), RR (Away).

6th) Sunrisers Hyderabad

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

Overall: Played 2, Won 1, Lost 1.

SRH have a strong top-order and a stronger bowling attack, but whether their weaker middle-order can alleviate the pressure from the top-order and give the bowlers something to defend will be crucial to their success this season.

After two contrasting matches, we are none the wiser as to how an untested middle order is shaping up. Against CSK on Saturday, SRH conceded too many runs to realistically chase, and against RCB on Monday the top-order chased 166 with ease.

Strategically, SRH have decided to leave Dale Steyn out of their starting XI in order to bolster their middle-order with an extra overseas all-rounder, Ravi Bopara, and pick Trent Boult as the overseas fast bowler. This is, although perhaps superficially surprising, a tactic that stands up to scrutiny on closer inspection.

SRH’s middle-order was weak enough last season when they played either Moises Henriques or Darren Sammy, so for them to have been led-astray this season by the temptation of Boult and Steyn in the same team would have further weakened an already weak link. What’s more, opting for Boult over Steyn on form and indeed on track-record does also make sense. Boult was the more impressive bowler at the World Cup and he also performed well in the Champions League T20 in Indian conditions last October.

Notably, SRH do have the option of a specialist middle-order batsman in Eoin Morgan, but given Morgan’s poor form and the options provided by Bopara (or indeed Henriques) with the ball, selecting the all-rounder also makes sense.

The SRH management should keep their minds open to the role of Williamson within the team. Williamson coming in at three makes sense following a big opening partnership, but if they lose an early wicket there is value in breaking up the Indian duo of Naman Ojha and Lokesh Rahul in the middle-order - even if that means Williamson will face fewer balls - if only to alleviate the pressure that could restrain a top-heavy batting order, as it did last season. Three home matches this week gives SRH a chance to settle on a stable strategy and a familiar formula in local conditions.

Ishant Sharma was dropped after SRH’s defeat to CSK where he conceded 46 from just three overs, in favour of Praveen Kumar. Given that Ishant can be eye-wateringly expensive and SRH already have a strike-bowler in Boult, opting for the cannier Praveen against RCB made sense. It’s encouraging to know they have a wicket-taking bowler such as Ishant to call upon if they so desired.

The Week Ahead: RR (Home), DD (Home), KKR (Home).

7th) Royal Challengers Bangalore

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

Overall: Played 2, Won 1, Lost 1.

Although RCB can thank some poor KKR fielding for their one victory so far, they deserved some luck after finally adopting a strategy befitting the quality of their batting order.

With Chris Gayle, Virat Kohli and AB de Villiers to call upon, RCB have in the past almost had more talent than they know what to do with. However, it appears that they are keen to allow their triumvirate to face as many balls as possible this season. Gayle and Kohli opening together is a bold and aggressive move, especially given that they had the option of batting Mandeep Singh, or indeed Dinesh Karthik, alongside Gayle. The signs for de Villiers are encouraging too, with him batting at five and four so far. Admittedly, RCB were to an extent forced to bat de Villiers higher this season, given his remarkable form in 2015, although the signing of Darren Sammy and the finishing ability he brings will no doubt have emboldened them to make that move.

Although he was dropped twice, RCB will take enormous confidence from the responsibility with which Gayle batted against KKR. If he doesn’t lose patience, and plays the anchor role, it will allow Kohli, de Villiers and indeed Karthik and Mandeep to play naturally rather than have to bat cautiously to rebuild the innings, as was so often the case last season.

RCB’s bowling was okay in their first match against KKR, with Abu Nechim and Yuzvendra Chahal bowling four overs each at 7 RPO. They clearly miss an attack leader, and indeed a wicket-taker, in the absence of Mitchell Starc and Adam Milne. That they only have one frontline spinner may well come back to hurt them. It’s hard to criticise the bowlers too much for their performance against SRH, given that 166 was too little to realistically defend.

The week ahead promises to be explosive, with their powerful batting line-up going head-to-head against MI and CSK at home.

The Week Ahead: MI (Home), CSK (Home).

8th) Mumbai Indians

This Week: Played 3, Won 0, Lost 3.

Overall: Played 3, Won 0, Lost 3.

Narrowly squeezing into the top-four last season should not have been allowed to mask deep personnel and strategic problems at MI, but it has, and with three defeats out of three they will need to find solutions fast or their season could be over very early.

MI opted to select both all rounders, Kieron Pollard and Corey Anderson, in the middle-order. With Lasith Malinga taking up an overseas spot in the bowling attack, they were forced to choose between Aaron Finch and Lendl Simmons for the fourth overseas player. Despite Simmons being integral to MI’s revival last season, the management, perhaps nudged by the owners who spent Rs. 3.2 crore on Finch at auction, went for the Australian. Finch has failed to repay the management’s faith, scoring 5, 8 and 10* before having to retire hurt with what could well be a season-ending hamstring injury. While you never want to see a player injured, Finch’s absence will likely lead to MI selecting Simmons as they should’ve done at the beginning of the season.

However, MI’s problems run far deeper than merely one under-performing overseas signing. The key problem area is highlighted by the fact that MI have made the three lowest 14 over scores so far this season. MI are losing too many wickets and scoring too slowly at the beginning of their innings, forcing prolonged phases of rebuilding which is leaving the powerful lower-order too much to do. MI are very much a bottom-heavy run-scoring team who score the majority of their runs in the final third, sometimes quarter of their innings, but if the top order is under-performing, that strategy simply won’t work.

In fact, MI’s lower-order has been surprisingly prolific, given the awful starts afforded to them by the top-order. MI have recorded the three lowest 14 over scores, but they have also recorded the three highest last six over scores. If anything, this makes the failure of the top-order all the more infuriating.

MI gave their starting personnel two matches before an overhaul, dropping wicket-keeper Aditya Tare for Parthiv Patel, who arguably should’ve started the season, and the out-of-form Ambati Rayudu for Unmukt Chand. However, as if the change in personnel wasn’t enough, MI opted to reshuffle the batting order, forming a new opening pair by sliding Rohit Sharma, who scored 98* in the first match against KKR, down from one to four.

Whether winning teams are stable teams or stable teams are winning teams is unclear, but what is clear is that unstable teams are not winning teams.

To be fair, MI’s batting and structure does actually look slightly better now than it did before the reshuffle. Patel, who opened the batting last season for RCB, should’ve started the season ahead of Tare. Sliding Sharma down the order adds some class to an otherwise one-dimensional middle-order in Rayudu’s absence, although Rohit really should be batting above Chand, and not the other way around.

Indeed, MI’s top-order should, quite simply, aim to ensure that Anderson and Pollard come in around overs 11-14, affording them time to play themselves in and launch an attack without having to be uncharacteristically cautious and help rebuild.

There is however, a caveat to MI’s problems. It may seem crazy to say it given the success of Pollard and Anderson, but MI are slightly hamstrung by selecting two such similar overseas players in the middle-order. Neither Anderson nor Pollard can be directly blamed for the position MI find themselves in, but with both their reputations and/or form demanding their selection, it rather restricts what MI can do with their other two overseas selections.

Strategically though MI can’t really change much. Anderson and Pollard will continue to be selected, and their roles are clearly defined. It’s up to the top-order to find some form and lay some platforms. Simmons should replace the injured Finch, while Patel should be given an extended run opening the batting with Rohit at three and Chand as a cushion to guarantee Anderson and Pollard’s entry at an over that suits them.

MI’s bowling department is also far from flawless. It is perhaps too early to comment on the decline of Lasith Malinga, but he, Harbhajan Singh and Pragyan Ojha, historically the spine of MI’s bowling, are not the bowlers they used to be. Josh Hazlewood has opted out of the season, citing a heavy workload, but fortunately MI do have Mitchell McClenaghan and Marchant De Lange to put pressure on Malinga as the overseas fast bowler. It should be said though that while the bowling has been worryingly toothless, they have had to defend small scores twice, and on the one occasion that they did bowl first against KXIP, they took wickets at regular intervals and would’ve got them out for a below-par score if it wasn’t for George Bailey’s fifty.

The Week Ahead: CSK (Home), RCB (Away).

Read about the Top Four here.

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

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