IPL 2022: Differently motivated captains clash in final

It will be difficult to pick a side to back in the final if you’re a neutral

By Sumit Chakraberty

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Rajasthan Royals captain Sanju Samson (left) and Gujarat Titans skipper Hardi Pandya. — BCCI
Rajasthan Royals captain Sanju Samson (left) and Gujarat Titans skipper Hardi Pandya. — BCCI

Published: Sat 28 May 2022, 10:58 PM

Hardik Pandya had a point to prove after being dropped from the Indian team and disowned by Mumbai Indians (MI). He had struggled with fitness and form last year after rehabilitation following surgery for a lower back injury. Gujarat Titans (GT) took a chance by picking the all-rounder from the discarded pool ahead of this year’s Indian Premier League (IPL) mega-auction and naming him captain of the new franchise.

He has more than repaid that faith by leading GT to the top of the IPL table and then nailing the first playoff to enter the final. Now he will want to go one better by winning the title in GT’s home venue of Ahmedabad on Sunday. That will be a remarkable achievement for a first-timer IPL captain.

It would almost match Shane Warne’s feat in winning the inaugural title for an unfancied Rajasthan Royals (RR) in 2008. That RR have now made it to the final again after 14 years is poignant in a season preceded by the untimely death of Warne. No doubt RR are driven by the emotion of losing Warne who continued to be associated with the franchise as a mentor.

But RR’s current skipper Sanju Samson also has a personal point to prove after being left out of India’s 18-member squad for the upcoming T20 series against South Africa, despite the absence of three top-order batsmen, Rohit Sharma, Virat Kohli, and Suryakumar Yadav. Indian selectors appear to value averages more than strike rates, and Samson’s predilection for cameos rather than big knocks has counted against him. But he believes his approach is right and has stuck with it even if that spoilt his chances to be in the Indian team.

“I’m not here to score lots and lots of runs,” he said in a YouTube show at the start of the season. “I’m here to score a small amount of runs which is very effective for the team.”

Many would agree that selfless risk-taking produces better results more often than anchor roles by top order batsmen in T20 cricket, depending on the match situation. Samson has averaged 30 this season with a strike rate of 147.5. Compare his approach with that of Lucknow Super Giants (LSG) captain KL Rahul, who will also lead India in the South Africa series. Rahul had an impressive average of 51 in IPL 2022. But his strike rate of 135 (around eight an over) doesn’t usually win a T20 game unless others pick up the slack.

LSG’s loss to Royal Challengers Bangalore (RCB) in Wednesday’s playoff illustrates the point. Rahul made 79 in 58 balls, a strike rate of a little over eight an over when the asking rate for the innings as a whole was over 10 an over after RCB scored 207. The LSG captain finally fell to a risky paddle shot in the 19th over after allowing the asking rate to climb to 16 an over. Hard-hitters Marcus Stoinis and Evin Lewis got only 15 balls to play.

Rahul has all the shots in the book and more but has chosen to minimize risk for a higher average in the last four seasons after a stellar 2018 season got him back into the Indian team. Samson, on the other hand, has used his shot-making ability to keep up a high strike rate despite many a promising knock being cut short by an ill-chosen shot. That he’s in the IPL final — and Rahul is not — perhaps validates his stance even if the selectors don’t.

It takes two or three batsmen to come good for a tall T20 score and RR have four batsmen in form. One of them, Jos Buttler, holder of the Orange Cap for the highest run-scorer, is enjoying the best IPL season of his life, averaging 59 at a strike rate of 151 with four centuries, including an unbeaten 106 in Friday’s qualifier against RCB. Buttler seems to be on a mission after his horrendous Ashes series just before the IPL.

His new-found friend at RR, Ravichandran Ashwin, is also on a mission to prove to selectors and the world at large that he’s still a force in limited overs cricket. Ashwin’s wicket of top-scorer Rajat Patidar, caught millimetres from the boundary by Buttler, put the brakes on RCB who could score only at a run a ball after that. Ashwin and Buttler appear to have bonded well at RR after the acrimony of their “Mankading” incident not long ago. Both have a well-developed sense of humour and shared a good laugh about it in a TV show where Ashwin asked Buttler what he thought of an upcoming change in the rulebook to destigmatize a bowler running a batsman out at the non-striker’s end if he’s taking a premature start.

Laughter aside, Ashwin has been miserly with the ball this season, and his spin mate, Yuzvendra Chahal, is currently the joint top wicket-taker. Chahal was uncharacteristically wicketless in the qualifier but will want to end on a high in the final after regaining his position in the Indian T20 team on the back of this IPL season’s performance.

His teammate Prasidh Krishna also has a special reason to look forward to the final. Eoin Morgan-led Kolkata Knight Riders (KKR) left him out of the playing XI in last year’s final, which proved to be a blunder. The tall fast bowler would have been a handful for Chennai Super Kings (CSK) batsmen on the bouncy Dubai wicket.

Krishna likes the bounce on the Ahmedabad wicket, as seen in his three for 22 in the qualifier against RCB. It was a confidence booster for the young speedster after GT’s David Miller smashed him for three consecutive sixes in the last over of the RR-GT playoff in Kolkata just a couple of days earlier.

Miller’s resurgence this season is a key factor in GT’s success, and a lot of credit for that should go to skipper Pandya and coaches Ashish Nehra and Gary Kirsten. The South African batsman famously remarked, “If it’s in the V, it’s in the tree; if it’s in the arc, it’s out of the park,” after a 38-ball hundred in IPL 2013. But he was under utilised in subsequent seasons, floating up and down the order and in and out of the 11. This ultimately affected his confidence and performance, contributing to a poor run from 2016. This season he was assured of a No.5 position and given the respect of a key batsman instead of being treated as a pinch-hitter or a finisher.

That has made all the difference for an average of 64 at a strike rate of 141, a huge jump from his average of 25 at a strike rate of 110 last year for his previous franchise, Rajasthan Royals (RR), whom he will be facing in Sunday’s final. That will fire up Miller.

Most remarkable of all is the return of 37-year-old wicketkeeper-batsman Wriddhiman Saha, who was unceremoniously dumped from the Indian team, after being told he had no future as a second keeper after Rishabh Pant because it would be better to groom a younger player. The withdrawal of England opener Jason Roy and failures of other openers GT tried opened a door for Saha at the top. Not only has he been getting GT off to a brisk start with inventive shot-making, he has provided space to the other, more established opener, Shubman Gill, to build an innings. Again, the GT think-tank deserves credit for getting the maximum out of limited batting resources while relying on a strong bowling unit to deliver victories.

If intelligence and motivation are the criteria, the two most deserving franchises are in the final. It started with the player acquisition where they gave equal if not more importance to bowlers, unlike several other franchises who were fixated on their star batsmen. Their skippers are leading from the front and also letting others shine.

Pandya has taken responsibility by batting at No.4 at a healthy average of 45 with a strike rate of 133. He has also bowled economically in the powerplay. Most of all, he has been a revelation on the field as a captain who maintains relentless pressure on the opposition, refusing to panic when bowlers come under attack.

Samson’s captaincy has been a bit erratic in comparison, but his humility appears to bring the best out of the experienced campaigners in his side, especially Buttler and Ashwin who are as involved in everyone’s performance as the captain. You can see Buttler constantly chatting with the vulnerable Krishna at the top of his bowling mark in the death overs. And Ashwin retiring himself out to give Riyan Parag a hit is as selfless as it gets.

It will be difficult to pick a side to back in the final if you’re a neutral.

Sumit Chakraberty is a writer based in Bengaluru. Write to him at chakraberty@gmail.com

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