The ninth edition of the Indian T20 League will be held just seven days after the T20 World Cup in April 2016. This time, however, things will be slightly different. While the league is struggling to retain the importance it has commanded for seven seasons, its two most exciting teams – the Chennai Super Kings and Rajasthan Royals – were recently suspended for two years in wake of their owners’ conflict of interest/questionable dealings. But the league will still have eight teams, with new owners taking over two teams – Pune and Rajkot – respectively. The 2016 edition will retain the same format, and will now finally see the most core group of players in the league – those from the Super Kings, who have refused to be dissolved since the beginning – scattered into the two new teams.
In the draft held at Mumbai, the two T20 franchises replacing the banned Chennai Super Kings and Rajasthan Royals were given a choice of five (out of 50) top players from the dissolved CSK and RR teams. Pune and Rajkot, owned by New Rising and Intex respectively, were allowed to spend 12.5 crore on their first pick, 9.5 on the second, 7.5 on the third, 5.5 on the fourth and 4 on the fifth. In total, they were 39 crore lighter after this initial draft of five picks, and will go into the Bangalore auction with 27 crore each to make up the rest of their squads.
Let us take a look at their prime picks and choices – seven from the CSK team and three from the Royals.
They had first pick and, not surprisingly, chose the most successful captain in the T20 format. Mahendra Singh Dhoni, for the first time, will play for a team not named CSK in this league. And also, for the first time, he will be separated from his partner-in-crime Suresh Raina – who is incidentally the most successful batsman in the league.
Their picks were: Dhoni, Ajinkya Rahane (the RR opener), R. Ashwin, Steven Smith and Faf du Plessis. Four of these guys are specialist batsmen, while Ashwin is the only bowler picked between both sides – thanks to his very successful 2015 test season.
Pune clearly went in with a strategy of picking specialists and experienced players – who don’t particularly set the stage on fire, but are dependable in tense situations. However, one feels their picks are too obvious and too skewed, simply because the world-class players they have picked don’t have that aura in T20 cricket. One needs T20 specialists in this format, something that Rajkot clearly seem to have caught on to, after watching Pune make their first pick. Dhoni is a questionable choice after his 2015 season, and though he has led CSK to as many as five finals over the years, he isn’t the finisher he once was. Moreover, without Raina in the middle order, he will struggle more – and the likes of Steven Smith will not be able to annihilate bowling attacks in order to make up for Dhoni’s circumspection.
Also, Faf could still be scarred from his Test experience on the Indian pitches – but he has performed well under Dhoni at CSK for a few years now.
Now this is a T20 core. Suresh Raina was their first pick, followed by Ravindra Jadeja, Brendon McCullum, James Faulkner and Dwayne Bravo. This brings the best T20 all-rounders of the game into one team – literally a dream combo, considering Faulkner was the Royals’ best hope even when Shane Watson was around. While Raina, Jadeja, Bravo and McCullum continue to be in the same team (from CSK to Rajkot), it’s the addition of Faulkner that will make their owners even happier.
This is a fantastic strategy, and they seemed to have learned from CSK success over all these years – picking good all-rounders is a battle won in this league. Pune, even when they finished rock-bottom under Yuvraj Singh a couple of seasons ago, had gone for the specialists (including Smith), and they suffered. Rajkot will definitely go in with the CSK philosophy, and even though teams like Mumbai Indians have upset the apple cart in the last few years with guys like Kevin Pollard and Rohit Sharma, Rajkot will be pretty excited about their chances this year. They could even win it, considering most other teams will retain the core. They will probably go for guys like Stuart Binny, Kevon Cooper, Shane Watson, Sanju Samson and a few others in the main auction soon.
It’s hard to tell so early if the next two seasons will matter at all in the larger context. But the precedent has been set, and finally, players like Dhoni and Raina will be forced to come out of their comfort zone and prove their mettle in what many will call their “twilight career years”.