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IPL 2015 Week Three: The Think Tank: Bottom Four



5th) Sunrisers Hyderabad

This Week: Played 2, Won 1, Lost 1.
Overall: Played 7, Won 3, Lost 4.

Sidharth Monga of ESPNcricinfo summed up SRH perfectly when he wrote that they are a team who epitomise the uncertainty of T20 cricket. Their team selection appears eternally confused, their strategy is inconsistent and their results are conspicuously unpredictable. Only once in SRH’s seven matches have they recorded the same result consecutively, with their season streak reading LWLLWLW, and they haven’t named an unchanged team even once.

This week, SRH played two matches that produced two starkly different results but, interestingly, leave them no closer to solving the perennial imbalance in their starting XI.

Against MI on Saturday they changed the balance of their team from the end of week two, opting for an inverse-CSK/RCB by selecting a bottom-heavy starting eleven, leaving out middle-order all-rounder Moises Henriques to allow Trent Boult in as the fourth overseas player, giving them arguably the strongest bowling attack in the league: Boult, Dale Steyn, Bhuvneshwar Kumar, Praveen Kumar, Karn Sharma and Ravi Bopara. For half the match, it worked. SRH bowled very well to restrict MI to just 157-8, picking up regular wickets on a pitch that seemed good for batting. Indeed, SRH coach Tom Moody, speaking after the game, said they felt they had restricted MI to a total that was probably “15 to 20 runs light.” However, after an opening partnership of 42 gave SRH a start to capitalise on, their notoriously weak middle-order wilted in the pressure of the chase. Both Lokesh Rahul and Ravi Bopara faced 27 balls and departed with strike-rates of less than 100, which is simply not good enough from numbers three and five in a chase of 157. Admittedly, MI bowled well, particularly at the death, but SRH lost the match as much as MI won it. Moody didn’t hold back in the post-match press conference, where he said “a disastrous batting display left us well short and embarrassed.”

To be fair to the SRH management, the decision to select Boult over Henriques and rebalance the team had foundation in logic and made tactical sense. Picking Boult was an attacking move that played to SRH’s strengths and matched-up favourably with a vulnerable MI top-order. It also placed greater responsibility on SRH’s inexperienced middle-order, which it could’ve thrived upon. As it was, it can be said that the players, who they probably overestimated, let down the management. It was, of course, only one match, but it was an alarmingly revealing one.

Speaking later in the week Moody was frank in admitting that playing Boult and Steyn together “exposed our top-order without having that extra overseas batsman or all-rounder.” Therefore, heading into SRH’s second match of the week against KXIP, which then carried huge importance, the general consensus was that SRH needed to reinforce their batting. SRH had a number of options. They could keep the balance of the side as it was, but drop Bopara for extra batting support, or they could change the balance once more by dropping one of the two overseas bowlers for the extra batting support. I felt that following the strong bowling performance against MI, and Bopara’s match-losing innings, they would leave Bopara out for an extra batsman, most likely Kane Williamson who would’ve brought the experience, acumen and quality that they so lack. As it was they stuck with Bopara, perhaps with consideration for his bowling option (even though he didn't bowl against MI), and dropped Steyn for Henriques, maybe with an eye on Henriques’ bowling given Steyn’s absence. SRH also dropped Lokesh Rahul for Ashish Reddy.

Despite the shift in balance the only real difference in SRH’s performance was the runs provided by David Warner, and that can be seen to be the difference between victory and defeat. Warner was the only batsman to score more than 30, and the only batsman in the top seven with a strike-rate of more than 112. Warner’s 41-ball 58 single-handedly provided SRH with a start that even his weak middle-order should’ve capitalised on, but they didn’t. A few late, lusty blows from Ashish Reddy aside, SRH’s middle-order let them down again. Henriques, given added responsibility at number four, a position he’s thrived at for his Big Bash League team the Sydney Sixers, scored at a strike-rate of 93.75 for 32 balls. SRH’s batsmen are fortunate that they have such a strong bowling attack. Despite Steyn’s absence they bowled excellently, taking wickets at regular intervals in a tight run-chase. A superb seventeenth over from Boult collected two wickets, before an even better over from Bhuvneshwar which went for just three runs, choked the end of KXIP’s innings.

Despite the crucial victory against KXIP, SRH are no closer to understanding their best team balance or strategy. However, their victory over KXIP took their win percentage when defending scores of 150 or more to 50%, the best for any IPL team, and it is clear that their strength does lie in bowling and in defending totals; that weak middle-order is not accustomed to pressurised run-chases. “There’s no doubt our bowling is our slightly stronger side to our game,” said Moody, “but if we [continue] winning games like that and we know we can continue to improve the batting we are going to be a dangerous side moving forward.”

Given that Bopara didn’t bowl against KXIP just as he didn’t do against MI, and that Henriques delivered four economical overs against KXIP, there’s certainly an argument to be made for bringing in a front-line batsman for Bopara, either Williamson or Eoin Morgan, to bolster the batting. Other than that there is little a shallow SRH squad can do to address their flailing middle-order. Although they have been unfortunate that Kevin Pietersen withdrew from the majority of the season, Indian players should form the spine of the team and for SRH, Naman Ojha, Hanuma Vihari and Rahul haven’t replicated the performances of their Indian bowling counter-parts Praveen, Bhuvneshwar and Karn Sharma.

Looking ahead, SRH will continue to pose a threat with that bowling attack, but until their batting improves they’ll remain overly reliant on Warner and Shikhar Dhawan, and markedly inconsistent in general.

The week ahead: CSK (Home), KKR (Away).

6th) Delhi Daredevils

This Week: Played 2, Won 1, Lost 1.
Overall: Played 7, Won 3, Lost 4.

Two contrasting results for DD this week, a strong win against MI and a thrashing at the hands of RCB, tell us little about DD that we didn’t already know, other than that this season they seem to be a mid-table quality team capable of qualifying for the play-offs.

They began the week with a clinical win against struggling MI, scoring 190-4 before restricting them to 153-9. An encouraging aspect of the performance was Shreyas Iyer’s vibrant 83 that laid the platform for DD’s excellent total. This column suggested last week that the inexperience of Iyer and Mayank Agarwal at the top of the order was a concern heading forward, but Iyer’s innings, if nothing else, proved that he has the ability to succeed at this level. JP Duminy’s 73 not out was also important; if DD are to remain competitive this season Duminy, as their captain and best player, will have to perform consistently. The most pleasing aspect of the victory, however, was the nature of DD’s defence of their total. In what were admittedly favourable conditions, their leg-spin duo of Amit Mishra and Imran Tahir took 5-54 from their eight overs, spinning DD to a comfortable victory. With left-arm-spinner Shabhaz Nadeem, Duminy and Yuvraj’s part-time spin to call upon as well, only perhaps KKR can rival DD’s spin-attack. The management were enthusiastic enough about their spin-options to drop the struggling batsman Manoj Tiwary for Nadeem for the match against MI, slightly rebalancing their team, bottom-loading it with bowlers.

Their defeat at the hands of RCB was arguably the most brutal loss of the season so far for any team. Bowled out for 95, RCB chased the runs with 9.3 overs and ten wickets to spare. However, although it was a huge defeat, it is one that is difficult to read too much into because, as Duminy observed after the match, losing top-order wickets quickly put them behind in the game very early on, and they were never really able to recover from 39-4. RCB bowled excellently and when DD’s top-order got that thoroughly gutted, it became very difficult for them to score runs at a rate likely to set a competitive total.

One aspect of DD’s team that is becoming a broader concern is the form of Yuvraj who, other than his 54 against KXIP, has only passed 10 once in five innings when he scored 21. Of course, Yuvraj exists as more than merely a cricketer for DD. The face of the cricket-industrial complex, Yuvraj’s signing was probably as much about fan engagement, ticket revenue and sponsorship as it was about runs, wickets and catches. But Yuvraj shouldn't be dropped yet—however unlikely that may be—primarily because he has been a match-winner in the past and intimated that in his fifty against KXIP, but also because there are precious few alternatives.

Elsewhere DD will be keeping an eager eye on Angelo Matthews who is yet to find real form with the bat and isn't bowling his full quota of overs. Albie Morkel, who hasn’t played since his fifty against CSK, is lurking in the dugout.  

Zaheer Khan is expected to be available for selection against KXIP on Friday and could take the place of Nadeem in the starting XI who is yet to take a wicket since being selected. It will, however, be Zaheer’s first match since last season’s IPL, and his stay may be short-lived if his match-fitness and capabilities have waned. DD are fighting hard for qualification and this is no time for sentimentality.

DD’s fixtures this week offer them a real opportunity to pull ahead in their qualification race. Beating KXIP would all but end their hopes of a top four finish, RR haven’t won in four matches following two defeats and two washouts, while MI are notoriously inconsistent and will probably also be fighting for a fourth place finish.

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

7th) Mumbai Indians

This Week: Played 2, Won 1, Lost 1.
Overall: Played 7, Won 2, Lost 5.

MI largely have a combination of good bowling and SRH ineptitude to thank that their spluttering season is still alive heading into week four. While Lasith Malinga and Mitchell McClenghan did bowl well at the death defending MI’s below-par 157-8, SRH’s middle-order wilted miserably to throw away a strong start and keep MI’s win tally at two after they were comfortably beaten in their first match of the week against DD.

With seven wins the very, very least a team generally needs to qualify for the play-offs, and this season being tighter than ever, it is likely MI need to win five of their remaining seven matches to stand a chance of qualification.

In week two, MI opted to change the balance of their team, dropping batting all-rounder Corey Anderson for bowler Mitchell McClenaghan, a that decision was justified this week with McClenaghan bowling well in the defeat against DD before both he and Malinga played instrumental roles in MI’s victory over SRH. It was encouraging for MI that on a day when they, like SRH, picked two overseas fast bowlers, weakening their batting, that while both sets of bowlers performed, MI’s middle-order at least did enough to ensure the victory, which is more than can be said for SRH’s.

As discussed at length in this column before, MI’s batting strategy—build a careful platform and launch—is well-known; for them, execution is the issue.

One man possibly holding back such execution is Ambati Rayudu. This season Rayudu has scored 0, 13, 29, 0, 30 and 7 and has only passed fifty once in 22 innings since being retained before the 2014 IPL Auction. Interestingly, Rayudu’s struggles date back to the beginning of MI’s decline last season and his calming influence and versatile approach is conspicuous by its absence in the middle-order and his time is certainly running out. MI have no obvious alternative options in the middle-order however unless they were to reshuffle their overseas balance by dropping Lendl Simmons and picking Colin Munro who this week was signed as a replacement for the injured Anderson. Ben Hilfenhaus, interestingly second cousin of MI coach Ricky Ponting, was also signed this week as a replacement for the withdrawn Josh Hazlewood.

One thing they could try to shake things up is to slightly shift their team balance and focus on replicating SRH’s broader strategy, bottom-loading their team looking to out-bowl, rather than out-bat, their opponents. That Anderson and Pollard have been broken up in the middle-order takes firepower away from the batting, lending weight to the idea of a bottom-up team structure. However, it would have to be a mentality shift as much as a personnel one, with no outstanding bowlers pushing for selection and the overseas balance already firmly set. MI have historically been regarded as a powerful batting team; perhaps a self-redefinition as a canny bowling team is one that could permeate their approach and success.

With time running out for MI to find some form and momentum, the overseas balance set and a shallow squad, their chances of a top four finish are very slim. However, they recovered from a similar predicament this time last season and have an okay set of fixtures in the week ahead.

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

8th) Kings XI Punjab

This Week: Played 2, Won 0, Lost 2.
Overall: Played 7, Won 2, Lost 5.

After securing a crucial super-over win against RR last Tuesday, KXIP failed to use that result as a stimulus for better things, being thrashed by CSK before falling short in a manageable chase against SRH.

The week began with the return of George Bailey from injury, who replaced Glenn Maxwell in the starting XI against CSK. Bowling first, KXIP conceded 192-3 with three of their five bowlers conceding more than 10 runs per over. But perhaps more of a concern was their inability to take wickets, with only two of them taking wickets and the third a run-out. CSK did bat well on a good pitch but it was an uninspiring bowling performance.

Last season, KXIP and CSK were the run-mongrels of the IPL, with five scores of more than 200 recorded in the six innings they played with each other. Last season, a chase of 192 wouldn’t have fazed KXIP. This season it may not have either, but they failed miserably, finishing 95-9.

Despite the conspicuous struggles of the batting order, with Maxwell out of form and no other overseas batsmen to call upon, KXIP had limited alternative options against SRH. They did however make the brave call of dropping fan-favourite Virender Sehwag for their first match at their base home-ground of Mohali, for Manan Vohra—who can count himself unlucky not to have featured earlier, but was squeezed out by Murali Vijay who KXIP pursued eagerly at auction. The only other change made was to drop Karanveer Singh, who was expensive against MI, for Rishi Dhawan. The changes had little effect. Vohra scored just five, Dhawan only bowled one over, and although SRH were kept to a below-par total it was their ineptitude as much as KXIP bowling that ensured that. And even though KXIP still had an outside chance of victory with two overs to go in their chase, this was almost entirely due to Wriddhiman Saha’s 42, as opposed to a strong team performance or strategy.

It is indicative of the struggles of KXIP that after their defeat to SRH, coach Sanjay Bangar was at a loss to explain how a team who could chase 191 against RR just a week before could struggle so miserably in pursuit of 150 against SRH.

I suspect the reason for such volatility, aside from different opposition bowling attacks, is not much more complicated than a collective loss of form from the batting order. Last season three of the top seven leading run-scorers played for KXIP; this season they have none in the top twelve.

However, to only blame poor form for KXIP’s struggles would be letting their management and adopted strategy off lightly. The individual struggles of a number of players have certainly not been helped and have arguably been exacerbated by the management’s poor utilisation of resources and questionable tactics.

In hindsight, a lot of KXIP’s success last season was built simply on a group of players in very good form. They were rightfully lauded for their top-loading of their innings with attacking players but their success, with a crude strategy, was fragile. It worked because key players were playing well—it sounds obvious I know—but scratch the surface, as teams have done this season, and there’s precious few alternative options and tactics. Take their core five players at the end of last season for example: Sehwag, Vohra, Maxwell, Miller and Bailey. They generally know one way: attack. Sure, Bailey has dug KXIP out of a few holes this year but he, like the others, is a boundary hitter. KXIP severely lack batsmen who are defined by their ability to rotate the strike, who can manipulate the field, who can work through and around a bowling attack. It’s a personnel issue as much as anything. And although it’s easy to say in retrospect, KXIP didn’t auction well. Murali Vijay, a player who has versatile skills, was a good signing, but they are still one, maybe two batsmen short in the middle-order with approaches other than all-out attack.

This isn’t to say they couldn’t have done more with what they’ve got this season, nor that they still can’t do more. Wriddhiman Saha batted at number three in the first three matches this season, but has since been dropped down the order. If Maxwell, Miller et al. were in the form they enjoyed last season, sliding Saha down would be understandable, but right now he offers a different approach, an approach they are lacking and an approach that could, if utilised well higher up the order, help ease other players back into form. As it is KXIP are blindly chasing a strategy that was built on little more than an unusually good phase of form.

With just two wins from seven matches KXIP require five wins, at the very, very least, from their remaining seven matches to stand a chance of a top-four finish.

Notably, KXIP have changed their team every match this season, just twelve months after a runners-up appearance based on stability. Of course, when players are out of form it’s harder to pick the same team, but some consistency would likely bring some familiarity and, hopefully, form. With three matches in the next week against mid-table opponents, DD, MI and RCB, there’s still a chance, an admittedly small one, that KXIP can pick up some momentum at the back end of their season if they trust who they tried against SRH, promote Saha and give it a chance.

Saying that, with every match from now essentially must-win, KXIP could go all-in on a perhaps reckless, perhaps foolish strategy of dropping Mitchell Johnson as the fourth overseas player, pulling together some overs from part-timers, recalling Maxwell and maybe Sehwag too, without dropping Vohra, and hoping that somehow a firepower batting order just clicks. It’s a strategy that would go against logic, and makes little sense, but logic isn't looking good for KXIP right now, and sometimes the IPL doesn’t make sense.

The Week Ahead: DD (Away), MI (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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