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Delhi Capitals, how on earth did you make the play-offs?

by Naked Cricket


Delhi vs Mumbai at the Kotla. A bunch of Delhiites are supporting the Mumbai Indians. Or Sachin Tendulkar. By now, Tendulkar is fast moving towards the end of his IPL career; coincidentally, the end is nigh for Delhi Daredevils too. And Ajit Agarkar who slides over a Tendulkar on drive that goes for four.

Delhi vs Bangalore at the Kotla. Starc is stripping Delhi’s batsmen with his yorkers. Out of nowhere, Dr Luthria from down the road, emerges. He seems far more cheery than ever, announcing his exit with a Krishna-like swirl in the air, “Game is over, nothing left to see”.

A healthy couple, seated in front of me, hand 500 bucks each to their healthy kids for eats.

Delhi vs Deccan Chargers. A bunch of cricket bloggers, two from South Africa go to the Kotla, to be pierced by “Go Chargers Go”.  

First season, first game vs Rajasthan. Delhi had it all, won the match, but guess who went on to win the IPL?

***

Years back, if you told anyone that Delhi Daredevils will change its name and make a comeback for the ages; ‘anyone’ would say, “yeah right, just like Robbie Uthappa will?”

It’s unfathomable that Delhi is in the playoffs. It’s not like there are no traces of that bewildering old franchise. Some of that old skin is yet to shedded, but it’s way deeper that something has changed. 

Delhi Daredevils was in a sad loop, thriving on poor decisions, building on wreckages, with their only real equity as a brand being laughing stock options.

But hell, it was Delhi. And if by some misfortune you found yourself looped in their doom, it was doubly painful. It was best not to watch them. Unless your thing was to watch pranksters masquerading as professional sportspersons.

There wasn’t a thing Delhi hadn’t tried – they tossed together the cricketing equivalent of tequila, whiskey, rum, cocaine, marijuana, acid in any order whatsoever. Which is why, they continued to barf on the IPL with such hilarity. 

Breaking the Sehwag-Gambhir opening for David Warner was up there with letting go of Gambhir at the top of his game.

***

Now, after all those seasons, Shikhar Dhawan is back to where it began for him. Last season, so was Gautam Gambhir. So dramatic was that season, Gambhir is now campaigning in the elections.

Delhi also went through a season when James Hopes was their most accomplished batsman. Along with Venugopal Rao. Hopes is Ricky Ponting’s deputy now.

By now, ownership change, personnel change, logo change, jersey change, colour change, the name-change from Delhi Daredevils to Delhi Capitals, all have been documented. It may have been tempting to go with Delhi’s erstwhile name, Indraprastha, but perhaps Indraprastha Rajdhanis didn’t quite cut it.

So here we are. With an investment in the future, with some smart tweaks finally paying off to balance the Delhi portfolio. To identify that Rishabh Pant, Shreyas Iyer and Prithvi Shaw are long-term investments – that will not be messed with was a start. No exits, no redemptions.

Shaw in only his second season shows how form or runs have not forced Delhi’s hand. Not as yet. Last season, he played nine games. Identified as a mainstay only after a few games. So far, in spite of his up-and-down form, he has opened in every match. The strike rate has dropped, as have the returns, but the backing has not.

On his day, Shaw is a match winner. There have been very few such days. But knowing that he will play every game, must count for something?

Rishabh Pant has possibly been India’s most scrutinized cricketer over the last few months. In his fourth IPL season already, Pant’s position is finally defined at four. Over the last three seasons, he’s played every Delhi game. From a force of nature; automatic transmission in previous years, in addition to the accelerator, Pant now has to be a clutch player too. There is the half century off 18 balls, but there are also innings that are run-a-ball before they cherry blossom and blind you with their magnificence.

While Pant’s strike rate, batting average and over-all returns have both dropped from last season, he’s been part of the engine room that’s driven Delhi to the play-offs.

16 sixes less, 35 fewer fours, appears Pant may be biting down much more than just his tongue these days. There’s much being made of him finishing games, but three not outs are writing a different ending.

Then there is the younger-elder statesman, Shreyas Iyer. Captain. No. 3. Communicator. Post-match eloquence. Mainstay against spin on the tired Kotla pitches. Iyer can pass off as an invisible captain. What, he was unfazed even after Delhi’s stormy collapse against Punjab. But it is his ability to turn it on out of nowhere, especially against spin (back-to-back sixes in a tight chase vs Rajathan) that demonstrate what he can be capable of.

When it doesn’t come off, he’ll just walk off with a shrug. He appears to be just one of the guys; in the dazzle of the IPL, that’s a welcome contradiction.

What more there is to Iyer, only Iyer can unearth from here. Beyond the runs, canny selections and bowling changes could be the key; bowling Amit Mishra for his full quota will be a start.

Across most seasons, Shikhar Dhawan’s returns have been similar. Blended with the unpredictability of smashing young Indian batsmen, Dhawan has worked as the near-perfect foil for Delhi’s top order batting.

While some of Dhawan’s dismissals appear almost as brazen as that of his brethren, it’s precisely a style of play and purpose that unites the team’s top four Indian batsmen.

On any day, Delhi can win big or lose even bigger. That they sealed nine wins in spite of the unfavourable Kotla pitch and bowling selections is creditworthy.

With Kagiso Rabada’s exit however, there is a definite downgrade in Delhi Capitals’ credit rating. From a triple A, it’s now hovering around A minus.

Rabada stopped Andre Russell with the yorker in that super over. Rabada stopped 25 batsmen. But Rabada couldn’t stop a niggle from making him back-off.

In Rabada’s absence, Ishant-Boult-Mishra stepped up. But without Rabada, there is no death bowler. Without Rabada, there is no bully-bowler.

***

By making the play-offs, Delhi has already crossed a bridge too far. From now on, they’re up against champion teams – first Sunrisers Hyderabad, 2016 champions; and next, if they win that game, against either three time champions, CSK or Mumbai Indians.

This season, Delhi has beaten both MI and SRH once but yet to beat CSK so far. If they are win the IPL, they will have to go past them – either on Friday in Visakhapatnam or on Sunday in Hyderabad.

That they won’t play CSK in either Chennai or Delhi is a start.

And if somehow they go past CSK, they will have beaten all seven teams.

If that isn’t a champion side, what is?

First published here

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Dhoni & Sons – from MS to Rishabh and beyond.

by Naked Cricket


How will you remember the IPL, five-ten years from now? What of it, will always stay with you?  What was that one night, that will shine brighter than all?

It won’t be who won, who scored how many, who knocked over how many batsmen. It’ll be about who was there.

Who continued to be there. Who was there, even when his team ceased to be. 

The man in yellow. The man who made a city yellow. Its people yellow. Its stadium yellow. Its fans yellow. Painted. Even when tainted, still yellow. It was, wasn’t it? Yellow? A sea of. A splash of. A splurge. A song. It’s on your lips, say it? It was all yellow.

The play was cold. Calculated. As the perfect cricketing murder on a cricket field. To finish the other. 

No matter what the build-up, the clues, the giveaways, the stand-my-grounds, the utter ridiculousness. No matter. It really didn’t matter.

The man would do what only he could do. Tease you, like he had so many times before. Kill you softly, with his cricketing cliché of a song.

Make you pull out your asthma inhaler. On the last ball of the 20th over again. 

Nearly kill you again. You could be blue, red, orange, pink; yet how would you resist the man in yellow.

***

IPL games aren’t supposed to stay with you. 8 pm, following day, you are already over the previous match. Its idiocy, miscalculations, bravado, dropped catches, required run rates, rants. That’s the price of binge watching. Unless.

Unless something else happens. Something that comes way out of the IPL script. A script written by the man in yellow.

“Not again?”

“He’s leaving it too late again?”

“But you know why he’s doing that by now?” It’s maths. Probability. To increase the chances of a win.

“Surely by now he knows better; he could do it before, not so any more.”

Few batsmen hit boundaries from the get-go. Somehow, what makes these situations priceless is the recognition that they can’t. Even if they could, let’s just assume they can’t. That’s one of the probabilities taken into account.

And by the time these other batsmen make it to the crease, it’s nearly closing time. That’s added pressure; not an assumption, a given. So here you are; Dhoni’s partner who has just walked in – not only can he not smash it across the ropes on his first few balls; there are very few balls left.

You could be a batsman in 3D glasses, playing video games, Dhoni will not give you the strike. This is Dhoni’s realm, and he makes the rules. For real. Virtually too. Bravo to that.

***

After all these seasons of yellow, a fresh dash of blue is supposed to match up, what, even outshine?

Rarely does a mention of Rishabh Pant not invoke one of Dhoni. What Pant can’t do, Dhoni can. What Pant can do, Dhoni can’t. It’s brutally competitive these mentions; as if neither player can be whole without the other.

So when Dhoni chaperoned CSK to within one run of an unlikely win against RCB, who else but Pant was summoned. Likewise for Dhoni when Pant stormed Jaipur’s citadel with four balls to spare.

Barely a week since the World Cup squad was announced, Pant served himself a reminder. That beyond a wicketkeeper, beyond a comparison, he is a screechingly unique batsman – with a batting voice like few others in the game.

One that can only be silenced at its own behest. That doesn’t need to assault the first few balls to rip apart a big T20 score.

Pant’s 3 off 6 in the 10th over to 23 off 14 in the 12th, mutated rapidly to a match altering 72 off 35 balls.

His technique was never pristine enough for the purists. Who’s that? Dhoni? Pant?

In Pant’s omission, the selectors may have done a huge service to the Delhi Capitals -  within a week, he appears to have grown up. Gone is the backbencher’s tickled grin. Gone is the mischievous chalk thrower. Gone is the compulsive chirper too? Who knows what Pant has become or can become – in his game, is an assortment of unlikely angles and strokes, uncommon to most Indian batsmen.

While most India batsmen tend to play in the V, Pant has always picked the arc of his alphabet. His cricket is combative, it appears both brave and foolish – his game is high risk, to back him is not unlike investing in an exciting small cap working out of a shed.


Once upon a time, a few perceptive men, invested in small cap Mahi and made it the blue chip MS Dhoni that we know today.

***

Rishabh Pant is 21. Dhoni pushing 38. Pant has played 5 ODIs, Dhoni 341. This is his 15th year in international cricket. While this is Pant’s third year, he is still not a mainstay in two out of three formats.

Until as recently as March this year, Pant was on track to make the World Cup squad – what went wrong? He played in India’s last two ODIs before the squad announcement – arguably his 36(24) and 16(16) were not enough.

Nor was the 23(19), the day before the squad was announced. Or the 46(31), a couple of days before that. IPL runs, though not quite finishing runs. More than all these runs, the slipups in those two ODIs, while keeping to spin may have cost him his spot.

In walked Chennai cousin, Dinesh Karthik, who didn’t score in his last ODI innings in late January. His 18(14) on squad-announcement eve, and 2(3) a couple of days before, didn’t deter the selectors either. Those 91 ODI games across 15 years, his T20 finishing form, keeping credentials, sealed the deal for DK.

As is often the case, the elders found comfort in the elders. The escape from Pant is temporary. Each game he plays in the IPL will be a reminder.


***

After CSK’s win on Tuesday night, Dhoni spoke of the returns on investment in Shane Watson. In spite of few scores of note, Watson was persisted with. Possibly because of the assured returns in the long run. Last year, he won CSK the title. Yesterday, he won them a game.

Watson is a tried and tested large cap. Yet in the IPL, few teams would’ve given Watson such a long rope. Watson said so himself. You know it too.

It’s time the Indian selectors, took a leaf out of CSK’s book. And took a punt on Pant. Isn’t that what Punter is doing?

Pant is not unlike Dhoni as a batsman. Both flam but equally unconventional and far from pleasing to the eye.

In the days and months that follow, Pant should extract whatever he can from the master. And hope that the man in yellow is up to some yeoman service.

After an entire generation of cricketers thanked Sachin, it could soon be Mahi’s turn to be thanked by upcoming wicketkeeper batsmen.

Welcome to Dhoni & Sons. Minds will open when questions are asked.  

First published here

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