Is the Indian Premier League that unchaste as it’s often deigned to be? Yes it’s facing credibility crisis and sponsorship mess, though not of any existential hue. From a layman’s perspective, most people are reasonably happy with what they see and the television money pouring in suggests the global markets lap up the product as well, though for several years now, since the high points of India claiming the first-ever T20 World Cup, the richest league in the world has not produced the strongest teams.
It does not require much imagination to understand that other cricket-playing countries are resentful of the IPL’s ever-expanding coffers, especially if it is perceived to be undeserved, and if the now prodigious income is being channelled into a demonstrably inferior product. Here, there’s an irrepressible parallel with the English Premier League, where for all the competitiveness and addictive appeal of the league, the country is a few light years from being a genuine contender for the Euro, let alone the World Cup.
Maybe, it’s a flawed perception or an urban myth that the country with the greatest or so-called greatest league should also, automatically as though by a natural whim, should churn out the greatest teams of the time. And it’s stating the blatant obvious that EPL, by now, is won and lost by virtue of the exploits of million-dollar imports and not home-grown talents like in the Alex Ferguson era.
But like the EPL, the unique selling point of the IPL is a competitive league, a domestic programme where games are often eventful and results unpredictable, a successful as well as an entertaining formula. And the eight-year-old IPL has not yet reached a stage where it can genuinely be called a nursery for up-and-coming players. So for the selectors, the success of an individual in the IPL is not the sole criterion for giving him the nod, but only a contributive factor. The IPL does occasionally thrust into the forefront players like Gurkeerat Singh Mann and Sanju Samson, but even then their domestic returns, are strongly assessed and mutually interspersed. It’s hard to recollect a single player in the present squad whose selection was coerced by his overwhelming numbers in the IPL alone.
This may account for the continued sidestepping of Robin Uthappa, despite the explosive Karnataka batsman making substantial contributions whenever provided an outlet and sustained effectiveness in the IPL. In Zimbabwe, he scored 39 not out and 42 respectively, but was omitted when the regulars returned. Logical enough, given the surwplus of choice at the top, the trio of Rohit Sharma, Virat Kohli and Suresh Raina being indispensable. Rightly so. But there is little to choose between Uthappa and Shikhar Dhawan. In fact, Uthappa has slightly better stats than Dhawan.
If the latter has blazed 2581 runs in 95 innings at a strike rate of 121.91, Uthappa’s corresponding numbers read 2996 runs in 115 innings at 127.70. But in international T20s, Uthappa’s is strikingly better than Dhawan, who in eight outings has managed 115 runs at 14.37 with a strike rate of 103.60. The right-hander, meanwhile has a superior mean of 249 runs at 24.90 with a hitting rate of 118. But both by no means are prolific, in numbers as well as methods.
This brings into the equation Ajinkya Rahane, who bench-warmed in the first two T20s in the South Africa series, and prevailing feeling that he is the most equipped batsman to partner Rohit at the top. He may not be firebrand in stroke-making as Dhawan or Uthappa, but his T20I stats aren’t inferior to either — in as many chances as Dhawan,.he has scored 158 runs more and +13 strike rate. In IPL also, he has yielded creditable numbers — 2195 runs at 33.76 with an average of 119.74. “There is little point in asking him to bat at number five or down, especially with the captaining distrusting his ability to rotate strike. He is best opening the innings, where he can exploit the field restrictions to get going. So even if he takes a few balls to settle in, he can compensate that by finding the gaps and hitting a few boundaries. He has done that remarkably in IPL” opined former cricketer Maninder Singh.
But India’s aches neither beings or ends with integrating Rahane into his perfect slot. The lower middle-order is as much a concern, more so with MS Dhoni emitting definite signs of rustiness. If Dhoni rekindles his match-killing mojo, the deficiencies of Ambati Rayudu can be masked. But with the Indian captain’s famed finishing skills waning, Rayudu’s one-dimensionality is only magnified. Like Rahane, Rayudu is someone who takes time to get off the blocks and is not an instinctive thrasher of the cricket ball. His is a game manufactured by circumstances, and he does a wholehearted job at that. But he isn’t the cold-blooded executioner of a 12-an-over run chase. Two ducks in three matches isn’t anyway an advertisement of his utility.
Another concern is all-rounder Axar Patel, and on both counts. So far, he hasn’t made any value addition with the bat, in ODIs as well as T20Is. While it can be argued that apart from a 22-run over against South Africa in Dharamsala, he has been mostly miserly. But still he has been a mere patch on Ravindra Jadeja at his best, and Patel would be wary that the Saurashtra all-rounder is plotting a staunch comeback—with 24 wickets and 149 runs in two Ranji matches. “He’ll be a great addition to the side if he’s performing well. And he brings with him a lot of experience as well,” observed Maninder.
While his reintroduction would offer teeth to the spin department, it can be further bolstered with the insertion of leg-spinner Amit Mishra, the most successful spinner in IPL, and someone whose expulsion has raised eyebrows, given his impressive set of numbers in T20Is. It can be argued that off-spinner Harbhajan Singh has as much pedigree and in fairness, hasn’t merely flattered to deceive. But a leg-spinner furnishes cutting edge and roundness to the attack, given the World T20 will be played in the subcontinent and in March, wherein the dry conditions would profit the spinners. “Definitely it will be, and Mishra has been phenomenal in the IPL and he bowled well in the T20I World Cup as well,” he said.
But more concerning is the pace-bowling department, where strangely, India roped in an ensemble cast of military-medium pacers. The trio of Bhuvneshwar Kumar, Mohit Sharma and Sreenath Aravind whittled out just a brace wickets in 14.4 overs. Bhuvneshwar bled 8.83 an over; Mohit 9.4 and Aravind 12. They were especially toothless at the death, wherein they leaked 44 runs in 3.4 overs. “That’s a definite concern for the team. This aspect of Indian cricket gets hidden in the IPL. The last five overs are generally handled by overseas recruits but there’s no hiding place at the international level. We have to come up with some solid plans to stem the run flow. Even T20 cricket has changed since the IPL and the inaugural World Cup,” observed former cricketer Aakash Chopra. Their lack of pace and variety turned easy fodder for the rampaging South African batsmen.
Any prescribtion to the ailment would begin with a filling T20 diet in the lead-up to the World Cup. Fortunately, India are playing a T20 series against Sri Lanka as well. “It demands intense preparation. So, if India want to repeat the exploits of 2007, it must play a lot of T20s to iron out the flaws,” he said.
Then, it’s hight time we settled on the permutation. So this Rayudu-Rahane-Dhawan dilemma should be settled as early as possible. Jadeja and Mishra could shore up the side. Lest the plight would be same as England’s—the stage of the world best league, but not quite a powerhouse by itself. Warning lights are flashing.
These three players are part of the India set-up and are likely to be tried out over the next few months
Has been a consistent performer for Rajasthan Royals in IPL over the years. This year, the dimunitive Mumbaikar made 540 runs in 14 games at an impressive strike rate of 130.75 to play a vital role in RR’s run to the playoffs. Rahane has the ability to keep the scoreboard ticking without taking undue risks, and India missed someone like him to stabilise their batting order in the second T20. Though he has been playing as an opener in IPL, slotting him won’t be a problem as he can be inserted anywhere in the batting order.
With Axar not making a mark, calls have been getting louder for giving the experienced Mishra a long run in T20Is. The Haryana off-spinner had a memorable World T20 campaign in 2014, picking up 10 wickets in 6 games at an economy of 6.68. He was India’s top wicket-taker in the group stages before R Ashwin overtook him. He has plenty of IPL experience too and has improved his batting considerably in recent times.
Gurkeerat Singh Mann
The 25-year-old all-rounder has had a good run of form of late. Picked for the India A side after a couple of impressive seasons with Punjab, he served notice with an unbeaten 87 against Australia A in Chennai, followed by a half-century and five for 29 in another unofficial ODI vs Bangladesh A. With a first-class average of 43.50 and List A average of 47.55, Gurkeerat is part of the ODI squad for South Africa, and could be blooded sooner rather than later.
Waiting in Wings
4 who have done well in IPL, and are in contention for WT20 next year...
A vastly improved player in recent times, Uthappa returned to national spotlight following superb shows for Kolkata Knight Riders in 2014. He was also the leading Ranji run-getter in 2014/15, his 912 runs in 11 games helping Karnataka retain the title. After sporadic appearances for the national side - most recently in Zimbabwe - he wasn’t even part of the 30-man probables list for the ongoing series, and the keeper-batsman will be motivated to prove his detractors wrong.
Impressed in his maiden Ranji season (2014/15), scoring 809 runs at 50.56 for Mumbai, before enhancing his reputation in IPL 2015 with 439 runs in 14 matches at 33.76. After failing to do justice to his talents in the A series, the 20-year-old has bounced back in the ongoing Ranji season with a double hundred against Punjab.
The leg-spinner has proved a handful for batsman in the last two IPL seasons. The 25-year-old has a knack for picking up wickets in regular intervals, as his average of 18.04 in 2015 testifies, and attacks batsmen even when going for runs.
The 36-year-old veteran left-arm pacer has been impressive in the format in recent times. After catching the eye for Chennai Super Kings in the 2014 Champions League, Nehra continued his form in this year’s IPL, picking up 22 wickets in 16 matches at an economy of 7.24.
Failure to fire
Four who didn’t make a mark in T20 series and will be under the scanner in ODIs
Axar, who gave a good account of himself in the home ODIs against Sri Lanka last year and followed it up with economical bowling in the tri-series in Australia, failed in the IPL this year. He had a forgettable series against SA.
M S Dhoni
Dhoni’s T20 numbers, for Chennai Super Kings and India, prove he is one of the best in business, but it seems a few cracks have opened up in Captain Cool’s arsenal. In the second T20, he arrived with his team struggling at 45/4—a situation tailormade for him—but departed a couple of overs later after making 5 off 8. In the IPL this year too, Dhoni was more subdued than usual.
After Dhoni, the Uttar Pradesh middle-order batsman is considered the best Indian finisher in limited-overs cricket. However, he hasn’t entirely lived up to expectations of late. Against Test-playing countries (excluding Zimbabwe), he averages 30.81 this year in ODIs, his tally being 339 in 12 matches.
One of the crucial reasons for Rayudu’s recent rise has been his IPL performance for Mumbai Indians over the years. As middle-order batsman and part-time keeper, he has been a vital cog for them, and has done the finishing job on more than one occassion. However, he failed to reprise his IPL heroics for the national side, being dismissed for nought in two games.