CHENNAI: The Sunrisers Hyderabad top-order looked out of sorts. Again. Nicholas Pooran looked like an expensive flop. Again. Abdul Samad, one of their retentions, and Romario Shepherd, one of their big overseas signings, didn't inspire much confidence.
The lower middle-order looked lightweight. Again. At least that was the knee-jerk reaction after the opening two games. The cudgels was out for Kane Williamson too. Why, the question went, was he retained over more T20 friendly batters like Jonny Bairstow?
Those questions, at least for the time being, have been shelved. They are form team of the Indian Premier League (IPL). On Sunday night, they eased past Punjab Kings whose chaos was no match for Hyderabad's calm, composed brand of cricket. After beginning the season with back-to-back losses, they have won four on the bounce.
How have they managed to turn it around? The basic building blocks - Aiden Markram as a finisher, Umran Malik as a wicket-taking enforcer through the middle and death overs and a bowling attack that embodies frugality - were already there. To that concoction, they have added Rahul Tripathi's enterprise at the top, a more circumspect Pooran at the start of his innings (that's a good thing for him) and identifying that Shepherd wasn't what they needed right now.
They replaced Shepherd with Marco Jansen and fully embraced their principal strength. All four of their frontline bowlers are seamers (Malik, Bhuvneshwar Kumar, Jansen and T Natarajan). It's hard to argue their returns.
Kumar may have fallen out of favour with the Indian team but his dot ball percentages in the powerplay, a bellwether for this franchise in the past, suggests he is operating at the peak of his game post his injury troubles. This year, he is fourth-best (39) for dot balls. Jansen, who has shared the new ball with Kumar, is already ninth-best with 32 even though he has featured in four games.
If, between them, they use height, the crease and conditions on offer to build pressure, Malik's raw pace and Natarajan's use of full deliveries, as well as hard lengths, is a different dimension. The left-armer has the joint-most wickets with 12 while Malik's pace is a double-edged sword for batters.
Runs can come freely but there is no extra time to make that adjustment, especially in the back-end to finishers and bowling all-rounders. On Sunday, Malik became just the fourth bowler in the league's history to bowl a 20th over maiden while picking three wickets in the process. Overall, his 4/28 (15 dots) helped restrict Punjab to 151.
Now, 151 can be a big target for a team like Hyderabad who set up to approach a T20 match like a shortened ODIs. They like to get their eye in, keep wickets in hand and go big at the death. This is where Tripathi and Markram has helped them a lot.
Both of them provided the thrust after a typically watchful start. Their runs are worth their weight in platinum to this franchise and here's why. Hyderabad's other eight batters have scored 512 (averaging 23.27). These two themselves have made 395 (79).
After the game against Punjab, Markram spoke about the role clarity and why that has helped him transform his white-ball skills. Not just Markram. It looks like the management - including superstar coaches Brian Lara, Muttiah Muralitharan and Dale Steyn - have handed out specific roles to every player in that XI.
"We are not really too worried about the economy rate... the job that we want him to do is run in and bowl fast and take poles and make batters play differently," was Steyn's message to Malik.
He and the team are enjoying that freedom right now.
Brief scores: Punjab Kings 151 all out in 20 overs (Livingstone 60; Bhuvneshwar 3/22, Malik 4/28) lost to Sunrisers Hyderabad 152/3 in 18.5 overs (Pooran 35 not out, Markram 41 not out).