IPL 2020: Inability to close out matches, KL Rahul’s strike rate hurt KXIP; CSK, MS Dhoni have to shake-up squad

Chennai Super Kings and Kings XI Punjab. Two teams with vastly different histories.

Coming into this, the 13th edition of the IPL, one of them had never failed to qualify for the knockouts or playoffs, and the other had only managed to do the same twice. One had a history of retaining its core performers, the other was most prone to annual fire-sales. Aside from the ‘Kings’ in their names, they’ve shared very little in common.

But for the third season running, they ran into each other in their final league stage games. The roles were reversed – in each of the last two campaigns, CSK had not only a playoff berth guaranteed, but also a top-two finish virtually assured; in 2020, coming into the 53rd game of the season, CSK were the only team out of playoff contention, while KXIP were very much in the running.

In 2018, the Super Kings, from their vantage point, had denied Kings XI an outside crack at a top-four finish. Two years later, from the opposite end of the table, they did just the same.

Both Chennai Super Kings and Kings XI Punjab have a lot of work to do to challenge for the trophy in the next edition of IPL. Image: Sportzpics for BCCI

Both Chennai Super Kings and Kings XI Punjab have a lot of work to do to challenge for the trophy in the next edition of IPL. Image: Sportzpics for BCCI

At the end of match number 53 of IPL 2020 – this crazy, tight-as-ever IPL 2020 – only two teams stood eliminated from the competition. Their respective seasons were as contrasting as their respective past: barring the tournament-opener, CSK never once looked like contenders, even as KXIP endured – and enjoyed – among the most topsy-turvy campaigns in IPL history.

But as both these units disembark from IPL 2020, they do so with strangely similar points of distress. A look back at where things went wrong for Chennai Super Kings and Kings XI Punjab.

Mr. Murphy takes a toll…

While their position on the points table was perpetually disastrous, CSK’s season had started imploding well before they first took the field. Two players struck by COVID, their vice-captain flying home due to a family emergency, and their only off-spinner opting out of the tournament – you could well argue CSK had hit rock-bottom even before IPL 2020 even began.

When they did finally get there, their match-winner from the season-opener – Ambati Rayudu – suffered an injury that kept him out for the next couple of games. Their most experienced overseas star, Dwayne Bravo, would end up being unavailable for the vast majority of the season too.

KXIP’s encounters with Murphy’s Law were of the more bizarre making. In their first game, they were incorrectly denied a run – and it ended in a tie – and in their last, they were implausibly denied a wicket. And although their injury roster was nowhere close to that of CSK’s, the one blow they did suffer came to their biggest impact player of the season in Mayank Agarwal.

…But you make your own luck, don’t you?

Simply pinning KXIP’s exit down to that denied run in their opener against Delhi Capitals, however, would be an extremely myopic view of proceedings. Because in that game, false short run or not, KXIP needed one run off three balls – and managed to force upon themselves a Super Over.

And it wasn’t a one-off, either: their capitulation against Kolkata Knight Riders, where they lost after requiring 22 runs in the last three overs with nine wickets in hand, surely enters the list of greatest IPL chokes – very nearly ‘bettered’ in just their next game, against Royal Challengers Bangalore, where they almost lost after needing 12 in three overs, again with nine wickets in hand.

Kings XI Punjab's inability to close out close games proved to be too costly for the franchise. Image: Sportzpics for BCCI

Kings XI Punjab’s inability to close out close games proved to be too costly for the franchise. Image: Sportzpics for BCCI

And then there was their epic concession to Rahul Tewatia at Sharjah.

On numerous occasions, even one such disaster-class has been enough to destroy a team’s campaign; when you do it thrice in the same tournament, you start ceding the right to lay the blame on luck.

And CSK? CSK’s erosion of their own fortune lay, predominantly, in their decision-making…who would’ve thought, right?

Imran Tahir had 77 wickets from 52 T20s since the end of IPL 2019 – where he was the highest wicket-taker, by the way. He didn’t feature in the first 10 games, even as CSK chopped-and-changed their way to a princely three victories.

Lungi Ngidi finished the tournament with nine wickets, only four behind CSK’s chart-topper, Sam Curran. He played only four matches (season strike rates: Ngidi 10.6, other CSK bowlers 24.5).

Ruturaj Gaikwad was given two matches early in the campaign, where he was made to bat in the middle-order for the first time in his professional T20 career. His next appearances came in the last four games of the season – during which he became the first CSK batsman to hit three consecutive half-centuries.

Forgettable stuff from Messrs Dhoni and Fleming.

Planning plays its part

Did they have it coming, CSK? No, this isn’t one of those hyperbolic hot-takes about whether or not ‘T20 is a young man’s game’ – because let it be known that that ‘theory’ has been spectacularly quashed by this very team in just the last two years (and that’s assuming you only watch the IPL). So treat this not as a question of age. In fact, forget age as a consideration at all for this argument.

Okay, so they built a side to dominate at Chepauk. You can’t blame a team for setting up to make home advantage count. You shouldn’t. But surely, even in those firm plans, you do make contingencies for the away games? Because, you know, you do have to play seven of those as well? In addition to the high likelihood of playoff matches not being at your home ground?

Forget the fact that the caravan had to move to the UAE, answer this instead: How much of a chance would this CSK be giving themselves at Wankhede? Or the Chinnaswamy? Or at Jaipur? Or Mohali? Or even Hyderabad?

Chennai Super Kings found it extremely difficult to replace Suresh Raina and Harbhajan Singh. Image: SPORTZPICS for BCCI

Chennai Super Kings found it extremely difficult to replace Suresh Raina and Harbhajan Singh. Image: SPORTZPICS for BCCI

And surely, even discounting the pandemic-enforced delays and pull-outs, the Super Kings think-tank was aware of the rust that was bound to have set in among their core group? Dhoni hadn’t played since the World Cup. Suresh Raina and Harbhajan Singh hadn’t played any cricket since IPL 2019. Ambati Rayudu had 14 domestic appearances since the IPL 2019 final. Kedar Jadhav hadn’t played a T20 since November 2019. Where were the fresh legs, even when this side was assembled back in December? Where was the ‘spark’?

Kings XI, on the other hand, did a lot of planning when it came to assembling this reworked unit.

They shelled out INR 8.5 crore on Sheldon Cottrell: a specialist with the new-ball, but known to be leaky at the death (economy 10.39 from Jan 2018 to Dec 2019). They spent a further INR 3 crore on Chris Jordan, who would be the death overs specialist – except, as they realised very early in the season, they couldn’t fit both in the XI.

And then there was Glenn Maxwell – IPL average of 22.90 going into the auction, and 19.12 if you considered the last five years – who became the recipient of an INR 10 crore bid.

The thing is, KXIP had a lot of money going into the IPL 2020 auction. Between Maxwell, Chris Gayle and Nicholas Pooran, they knew the majority of their first-choice overseas picks were accounted for. They also knew their only real Indian bowling option was Mohammed Shami. To then end up with an overall Indian bowling contingent comprising Ishan Porel, Arshdeep Singh, Darshan Nalkande, Krishnappa Gowtham, Murugan Ashwin, Ravi Bishnoi, Tajinder Dhillon and Harpreet Brar…not exactly well thought out, was it?

Lucky for them that Arshdeep, Ashwin and Bishnoi stepped forward to punch above their weights, but if KXIP felt their bowling was ill-equipped for the rigours of a 14-game season – which it was – who did they have to blame?

Names, and even runs < Intent

You’d think 670 runs in any tournament is an outright stamp of excellence. It should be, in most cases. It would be, without any other consideration, if we were in cricket’s pre-data era.

But this was 2020. And this was – and, surely, still is – among the country’s best batsmen in this format. And yet, KL Rahul piled on his 670 runs at a strike rate of 129.34 – the lowest for any of the 18 instances where a batsman has crossed 600 runs in the history of the IPL.

In only two out of 14 innings did Rahul strike at more than 130. If you exclude those two knocks, he scored 461 runs off 398 balls – at a pre-historic strike rate of 115.83.

Sorry, but irrespective of the KXIP skipper’s views on strike rates in T20s, they do matter. And when a team’s best resource starts under-cutting his own returns to this extent, it most certainly does. Kings XI had to learn that lesson the hard way.

KL Rahul scored 670 runs ofr Kings XIP Punjab in IPL 2020 but at a strike rate of 129.34 which reduced the impact of his innings. Image: Sportzpics for BCCI

KL Rahul scored 670 runs for Kings XIP Punjab in IPL 2020 but at a strike rate of 129.34 which reduced the impact of his innings. Image: Sportzpics for BCCI

Where Rahul started a debate incongruous to the format with his strike rate, CSK befuddled all with their own intent. The lack of it, that is.

It began with their two ‘net run rate building’ innings in the opening week. Chasing 217 against Rajasthan Royals, CSK pushed and prodded their way to 115/5 in the first 15 overs. Three days later, chasing 176 versus Delhi Capitals, they stonewalled to 47/3 in the first 10.

Five different opening batsmen were tried through the season – including Watson and Faf du Plessis, and even Sam Curran. Between them, these five struck at just 6.74 runs per over in the powerplay. Worse still, nearly 53 per cent of the deliveries faced by CSK’s openers in the first six overs were dot balls.

In the middle overs, the poorest performer was the captain – Dhoni struggled to 62 runs off 70 balls between overs 7-15, with only five boundaries and as many as 31 dots.

But nothing illustrated the baffling intent of the CSK batsmen better than Kedar Jadhav’s three horror stints in the death overs, which yielded 12 runs – off 21 balls.

What’s the future?

Despite the shortcomings this year, in Rahul, Agarwal and Pooran, KXIP have a batting core that can carry them forward for several seasons. As for Gayle, if there’s no mega-auction and teams continue with the bulk of their present rosters, surely the Universe Boss isn’t going to wane away in another few months when he hasn’t in all these years?

Leg-spin twins Bishnoi and Ashwin, under the tutelage of their legendary coach Anil Kumble, provide enough reason for optimism. Kings XI will hope Shami can retain the fizz and the fitness from what was his best-ever IPL campaign by a distance, and with Arshdeep showing promise too, that makes for a reasonably solid all-Indian attack.

If enough new overseas alternatives are available at a possible mini-auction in early 2021, then we might have seen the last of Maxwell, Cottrell and Mujeeb-ur-Rahman at KXIP.

As for CSK, the sparkling and sprightly duo of Curran and Gaikwad have surely already been earmarked for the long-term future. Ngidi, ideally, should be part of that group too.

There’s enough merit in squeezing out another year from du Plessis and Tahir, but it’s perhaps in CSK’s best interest to bid adieu to Bravo and Watson – not just for form, but also finances. Speaking of finances, releasing Jadhav, too, will make the Super Kings richer by INR 7.8 crore going into the next auction.

What they do with Raina is hard to assess; this might not necessarily be as much a cricketing decision as a sentimental one.

But one thing we now ‘definitely’ know: MS Dhoni will be wearing the CSK colours in 2021.

On the evidence of this season, that should make for happy reading only for nostalgic value. But one would hope – for the sake of the Super Kings, as well as the romance – that the turnaround of 4-5 months between this IPL and the next could produce a sharper Dhoni than we saw this time, perhaps with some of the ‘spark’ of old too.

“We’ll come back strong, that’s what we are known for.”

That’s the hope, isn’t it?

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