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IPL 2015 Week Two: The Think Tank: Top Four



1st) Rajasthan Royals

This Week: Played 3, Won 2, Lost 1.
Overall: Played 6, Won 5, Lost 1.

Although RR’s winning streak was ended by KXIP on Tuesday, a thumping victory over CSK on Sunday, following their win against SRH on Thursday took RR to within three wins of a likely Play-Off spot.

RR’s strategy and selection is extremely settled and they only made their first changes of the season for the match against CSK when captain Shane Watson returned from injury in place of Tim Southee who had been out-bowled by Chris Morris. There were some suggestions that given RR’s run of form they didn’t need Watson to return, but back-to-back scores of 40 plus in his two innings since doing so, justify the decision. RR also dropped Dhawal Kulkarni for Ankit Sharma, a decision most probably influenced by conditions, not form. Sharma was dropped for the next match against KXIP for leg-spinner Rajat Tewatia.

It’s a minor quibble but against SRH and KXIP at clutch moments RR were alarmingly vulnerable to pressure. Against SRH their batting spluttered chasing a meagre total and only won off the last ball, and against KXIP their fielding and bowling standards slipped as the match approached a Super Over.

Like the CSK match on Saturday, RR’s clash away to KKR will be another barometer of their quality. If RR win all three of their matches this week their Play-Off qualification will be all-but guaranteed.

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

2nd) Chennai Super Kings

This Week: Played 3, Won 2, Lost 1.
Overall: Played 5, Won 4, Lost 1.

CSK bounced back strongly from a dispiriting defeat—their first of the season—against top-placed RR on Sunday with a convincing win against RCB on Wednesday. CSK’s other win this week came when they thrashed MI at the Wankhede.

As is often the case with winning teams, and almost always the case with CSK, there is very little to discuss in terms of selection and strategy. CSK have played the same XI in all five of their matches so far and each player in the team appears familiar and content with their roles.

This was a confusing week for CSK’s bowlers who were meticulously taken apart against RR before stifling RCB with Ashish Nehra taking 4-10 and Ishwar Pandey 1-21. CSK are the only team who are completely unbalanced with their overseas selections, using all four spots on batsmen, backing themselves to score more runs than their opposition, however many that may be. That Nehra in particular, has joined last season’s successes Pandey and Mohit Sharma adds another dimension to CSK’s already formidable team.

CSK face two challenging matches this week, against last season’s finalists KXIP and KKR. Their match against a strong KKR will offer CSK a chance to at least partially rebuild their confidence and aura which will have taken a hit against RR.

The Week Ahead: KXIP (Home), KKR (Home).

3rd) Kolkata Knight Riders

This Week: Played 3, Won 2, Lost 1.
Overall: Played 5, Won 3, Lost 2.

This was a strange week for KKR. They staged a remarkable comeback to beat KXIP on Saturday, brushed away DD on Monday and unfortunately got the tougher side of a re-calculated total against SRH on Wednesday; originally chasing 176-4, KKR’s adjusted target was 119 from 12 overs and they fell short.

Three times they batted second and three times they did so with varying degrees of success. Against DD their run-chase was textbook - losing just four wickets, they reached the target with 1.5 overs to spare. Against KXIP their top-order crumbled before Andre Russell and Yusuf Pathan hauled KKR to victory. Meanwhile, against SRH the steep target proved too many even for KKR’s in-form batting order. Given the difficulty of the chase it’s hard to read too much into the batting in the SRH match. More concerning was the top-order collapse against some admittedly probing KXIP bowling. KKR were really struggling at 60-5 having lost three wickets for no runs before Russell joined Yusuf.

The innings played by Russell against KXIP, a 33-ball 66 should embolden KKR to utilise Russell’s grossly underrated and misused batting more effectively. Russell has not only the power and timing, but intelligence and subtly to be one of the world’s leading T20 batsman.

Meanwhile the restraint showed by Yusuf in his first two innings of the week, against KXIP and DD add another dimension to KKR’s already multi-faceted team. Rather than being an unreliable slugger, Yusuf has shown depth to his game that had rarely been seen.

KKR made just one change across their three fixtures this week when Johan Botha replaced the injured Ryan ten Doeschate for their match against SRH.

This is a season-defining week ahead for KKR playing RR at home before playing the first of consecutive matches against CSK on Tuesday. KKR are playing the league’s first and second placed teams in their next three games. If they lose them all they’ll have six points from eight matches and will likely be scrapping for qualification with the mid-table teams. KKR missed their opportunity to elevate themselves from such a situation against SRH; they’re now going to have to do it the hard way.

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

4th) Sunrisers Hyderabad

This Week: Played 3, Won 1, Lost 2.
Overall: Played 5, Won 2, Lost 3.

SRH’s predominant batting strategy is a kind of inverse MI, with most of the power and experience at the top and rather than in the middle-order. Against KKR is probably the closest SRH have come to executing their batting strategy with Shikhar Dhawan and David Warner putting on 130 for the first wicket before the middle-order looked to elevate them to a competitive total. It was encouraging to see SRH split up Naman Ojha and Lokesh Rahul, and in fact promote Ravi Bopara against KKR. SRH’s middle-order is probably the weakest in the league and to be more than the sum of their parts the SRH management have got to be pragmatic and open-minded about its utilisation.

SRH made a couple of significant changes to their personnel this week. Firstly Kane Williamson was dropped for Eoin Morgan, a move which made sense on paper, if not perhaps in reality. Williamson is a top-order batsman and as pointed out on The Think Tank last week SRH’s middle-order is their glaring weakness, drafting in middle-order man Morgan, made sense therefore. Morgan’s form however has been dire for some time now and it wasn't a surprise, although it was a shame, when Morgan was dropped for Moises Henriques against KKR. Henriques has proven to be a useful middle-order anchor for the Sydney Sixers in the Big Bash League and provides a bowling option. However, even then, Henriques adds subtly, experience and careful stability to SRH’s middle-order but he isn’t the radical lower-order hitter that they are crying out for.

SRH also made a big decision against DD, and that was to drop Trent Boult for Dale Steyn. Boult had failed to replicate his outstanding World Cup form in the IPL and the management felt it was time to give Steyn a go.

Heading forwards SRH need to evaluate whether they are best served by patching-up their batting and balance with all-rounders Bopara and Henriques, or whether they should play to their strengths, select both Boult and Steyn and create an inverse RCB, packing the team with bowlers. Praveen and Bhuveneshwar Kumar were pleasingly impressive defending 119 in 12 overs against KKR.

More fundamentally however, as discussed in this column last week, it’s not SRH’s overseas players that need to stand up, it is their Indian players. Ojha, Rahul, Ashish Reddy, Karn Sharma, and the Kumars.

SRH were dealt a blow this week when all rounder Laxmi Rata Shukla was ruled out of the remainder of the season with injury. He was replaced in the squad by a similar cricketer, Bipul Sharma.

The match against MI on Saturday is a huge one for SRH, perhaps their biggest of the season so far. Given the form MI are in SRH head into the match favourites, but with a disjointed, incoherent start to the season it’s not difficult to see SRH succumbing to a powerful and unpredictable MI team.

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

Read about the Bottom Four HERE.

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

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