In the knockout phase of IPL though, where fortunes could soar or go kaput in a matter of two or three matches, leadership usually makes the difference.
If it’s the Indian Premier League, can Chennai Super Kings stay out of the playoffs? Last year was an aberration for CSK as they hobbled from defeat to defeat before finishing seventh. Normalcy has been restored but IPL is opening up to be a two-way race now with Delhi Capitals having made it to the playoffs for the third consecutive season. Will this finally be Delhi’s season of joy? Often have we had teams going great guns during the league stage, only to fritter away their chances in the playoffs.
But Delhi Capitals have built an appetite for wins and the nerve to withstand jitters with an outstanding Indian core comprising Rishabh Pant, Shikhar Dhawan, Shreyas Iyer, Prithvi Shaw, Ravichandran Ashwin and Axar Patel. Add Anrich Nortje, Kagiso Rabada and Shimron Hetmyer to the mix and DC look and play like a side ready to buck the trend. They have defended well and been in command of most chases, but more importantly been a standout bowling side. With Nortje, Rabada and Avesh Khan unnerving batters with their cocktail of pace and slower variations and Patel and Ashwin working their magic in the middle overs, DC have looked ruthless at times. Rarely has an IPL team looked this complete.
In the knockout phase of IPL though, where fortunes could soar or go kaput in a matter of two or three matches, leadership usually makes the difference. This is where MS Dhoni, despite his flagging form with the bat, will always have the edge. He has had his share of problems despite sorting out the opening combination—a major drawback last season—by giving Ruturaj Gaikwad a longer stint with Faf du Plessis. Losing three out of the four league matches CSK bowled second in the UAE leg of this competition means the batting has still flunked at times and Dhoni isn’t quite working his charm as a bowling captain in low-scorers like he used to. On the flipside, this also means Dhoni has the best chance to put it all behind and start afresh. One win puts them in the final, an all-too-familiar scenario for them.
For all their show of strength in the last three seasons, Capitals are yet to experience that next step. It can work for or against them. Pant has been quietly playing the part of a responsible captain, cutting down on his aggression and trying to anchor the innings. But Delhi could need their captain to go back to his old ways if they don’t want to be too predictable in front of Dhoni. Sunday being the first qualifier, Pant has a chance to get up if he falls but it’s best to play this sort of who-blinks-first matches just once before the final. The stakes are higher for Royal Challengers Bangalore and Kolkata Knight Riders and have possibly gone through the roof for their respective captains.
On the cusp of the T20 World Cup after which he will step down from India’s T20 captaincy, nothing less than a maiden IPL win will satisfy Virat Kohli. Where RCB have improved is taking the star quotient down a few notches and reinforcing their top half with some genuine Indian talent. Devdutt Padikkal continues to amaze with his maturity but more heartening has been the emergence of Srikar Bharat as the second uncapped finisher RCB were long in search of. Thanks to his last-ball six against DC in their final league match on Friday, RCB enter the playoffs with unshakeable faith in their youth. “Pulling off a chase gives you a different kind of confidence going into a playoff,” said Kohli after the win. “And we haven’t chased much in the tournament, so it’s also important to do well batting second.”
Kohli continues to shepherd RCB’s batting as opener. He has had his good days as well as bad. But no one would be happier than Kohli that RCB have stopped relying solely on their captain. You can’t substitute the hunger to win. Harshal Patel has been tireless in proving his worth. Overlooked for the T20 World Cup, Yuzvendra Chahal has a point to prove. So does AB de Villiers, who is yet to win an IPL or world title.
Unlike Dhoni who knows he is the heartbeat of CSK irrespective of personal form, Morgan’s self-belief is intertwined with his batting. After five single-digit scores and an unbeaten 13, Morgan knows his team has waited too long for their captain to come good. What hasn’t stopped KKR from winning though is their wealth of match-winners—Varun Chakaravarthy, Sunil Narine, Lockie Ferguson, Shakib Al Hassan, Andre Russell and that dangerous Indian batting quartet of Venkatesh Iyer, Shubman Gill, Nitish Rana and Rahul Tripathi. That they qualified almost without the help of Shakib and Russell is a resounding thumbs-up to KKR’s resources
It’s been a great comeback, entering the playoffs from almost nowhere, but a great innings from Morgan can only make it better from here. All these factors set up a rather exciting four-way battle between a World Cup-winning captain and the past, present and possible future of Indian leadership over the next six days. Mumbai Indians play no part anymore but IPL’s yellow hue is still intact. Only time will tell if it’s ready to embrace newer colours.
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