At the start of the 2022 Indian Premier League, Punjab Kings made a big bang. It scored 208 runs in the very first game against Royal Challengers Bangalore, that too in a successful chase. Thereafter across the next four games, Punjab crossed the 180 on three more occasions and this rapid scoring included a keen statistic – a highest power-play run-rate of 9-plus per over.
Weirdly enough, Punjab won only three out of those five games and this streak of inconsistency is witnessed across its season. In 12 matches thus far, the Kings are yet to win back-to-back games. It is not a one-off streak, for Delhi Capitals boast of the same statistic. It too is yet to win back-to-back games in an IPL season marred by inconsistency. No wonder, both teams are on 12 points after 12 games, six wins and six losses each, and sitting mid-table in a tight race for the fourth knockouts’ spot.
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The keen differentiation between the two teams is in how this inconsistency has come about. Delhi’s problems are of a Covid-nature – it is the only franchise struck down by the pandemic in this season, time and again losing key players and personnel to illness, which hasn’t allowed them to gain momentum. At least, it is a ready-made excuse for the post-season review. For Punjab, well, its problems are of its own making.
Sample this. In the first two games, Sri Lankan batsman Bhanuka Rajapaksa set alight Punjab’s games. Against RCB, he smacked 43 off 22 balls, including four monstrous sixes and a strike rate of 195.45. It got better in the second game – 31 runs off only 9 balls at a strike-rate of 344.44. The left-hander’s hitting style was a proper throwback to Sanath Jayasuriya’s era – that same seat-of-the-pants style of hitting, effortless, without creasing his tracks and getting the job done.
Rajapaksa threatened to set alight the tournament with his no-gimmick hitting. Only, he wasn’t allowed to. He scored 9 runs in the third game and then was left out for the next four games. There wasn’t any reason given – he simply made way for England’s Jonny Bairstow on account of one poor score. Perhaps, Rajapaksa was always picked as the backup to Bairstow, and yet it didn’t make for any sensible explanation.
It didn’t help matters that Bairstow was in torrid form himself. In those four games, he scored 8, 12, 12 and 9. Punjab lost three of those four games. It isn’t to blame those losses on just one player, but you can see where the momentum was lost for the Kings this IPL season. Don’t fix what isn’t broken, goes the cliché. Coach Anil Kumble and captain Mayank Agarwal did precisely the opposite.
The balance of power between these two figureheads is an interesting one. Agarwal is newly made captain after KL Rahul left the franchise unceremoniously and sought a fresh start at Lucknow Super Giants. Why did a star Indian batsman, a leading IPL one at that, leave so unceremoniously? Did it have something to do with Kumble’s coaching stint that began in October 2019 and so far hasn’t yielded the desired results?
Punjab had finished seventh and sixth in IPL seasons 2018 and 2019. Since Kumble’s inclusion, they have finished sixth in both 2020 and 2021. In a ten-team 2022 IPL, the Kings are still sixth, never having made it to the top half of the table and could finish in the same spot in a week’s time. With Agarwal only just getting the captaincy stint, and Rahul leaving prior, the spotlight is trained firmly on coach Kumble. Where are the results?
It makes for worse reading when you see how well Punjab did in the auctions this year. Agarwal and Shikhar Dhawan for consistency, Rajapaksa and Bairstow for higher strike rates, and the mercurial Liam Livingstone for middle-order power hitting – this was, on paper, one of the best batting line-ups before the tournament began. Now, when you see the likes of Gujarat Titans with their unpredictable batting, or Rajasthan Royals with its over-dependency on Jos Buttler, sitting pretty at the top, you wonder what went wrong.
Livingstone’s case is another damning example. Barring Dhawan, he has been the most consistent Punjab batsman in IPL 2022. With four blistering half-centuries, he has won the Kings games all by himself. And yet, at the very business end of this tournament, it is quite unclear what his precise role is. Does Livingstone balance the line-up at number four, ahead of Agarwal batting at number five? Or, does he play the floating finisher, coming in as low as number six on occasion?
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The fact that Agarwal has had to make way and drop down to the middle order just to accommodate Bairstow’s poor run of form goes to show how badly Punjab has mismanaged its resources. It took Bairstow six innings to score past 20, eight innings to register his first half-century as Agarwal dropped down, and now he has bagged back-to-back fifties against Rajasthan and Bangalore at the time of writing. The end result – well, Punjab still only won one of those two games.
The Kings have done well to pick a consistent bowling line-up. But as the likes of Mumbai Indians and Chennai Super Kings have shown this season – it is the batting that matters more in a T20-league tournament. Punjab made all the right moves in February, but its scattergun approach to team selection has left an imbalanced batting line-up in April-May.
Can Kumble and company get their act together, making one hefty, last push to the knockouts? We will know in seven days’ time.
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