Just about halfway through the eleventh edition of the Indian Premier League – routinely the trend-setting stage of any IPL tournament – perhaps it’s time to look into the crystal ball of cricket. We already have a lot of defining images from this season’s action. Some of them: Virat Kohli’s disgusted but brilliant diving catch towards the fag end of RCB’s awful loss to KKR on Sunday night, Andre Russell’s birthday blast of a three-wicket bowling spell, Rashid Khan’s king-like celebrations during his middle-over wicket-taking spells, Kane Williamson’s animated team huddles, MS Dhoni’s aggressive return to form at the crease, Gautam Gambhir’s gracious Ponting-like exit from his own Delhi Daredevils setup and Siddharth Kaul’s spunky death overs bowling in the absence of Bhuvneshwar Kumar.
But what’s about to come is arguably more exciting than what has already transpired. To be fair, we are never in a position to predict anything in T20 cricket – ask Mumbai Indians after their multiple last-over losses. But let’s give it a fair shot:
CSK TO TOP THE TABLE
The returning Chennai Super Kings, statistically the most successful IPL team in its ten-year history, looks primed to defy expectations and top the group stages with its blend of extreme experience/age and second winds. With Suresh Raina too back in form, and MS Dhoni firing like the old days, the team is alternating between the all-round expertise of old warhorses Shane Watson and Dwayne Bravo. They have lost two close games, but seem like the most settled, balanced and self-confident teams under their seasoned skipper. Perhaps the main reason is that both Dhoni and Raina, as well as Purple Cap holder Ambati Rayadu, are again desperate to prove themselves after a few lukewarm professional seasons. Rayadu is hungry, taking to the top order like never before. And the bowlers, despite young Deepak Chahar injured now, have been there and done that.
SUNRISERS, THE FAIRYTALE TOP 3
The greatest “defenders” in T20 cricket, Kane Williamson’s Sunrisers Hyderabad, are also the weakest batting lineup in the tournament. Without David Warner, and with Shikhar Dhawan still troubled by his elbow, it’s only the Kiwi batting star that has been firing to take them to middling to low totals. But a 150 scored by SRH is a 200 for most teams, because their bowling lineup – sans an injured Bhuvi – is the cleverest in the league. You’d think that a pace lineup led by Siddharth Kaul and Basil Thampi would have its off days, but they have now defended totals less than 155 three times in a row, peaking with a phenomenal defense of 118 against a clueless Mumbai Indians. With Rashid Khan and Shakib Al Hasan spinning out teams in the middle overs, there has been no team with a better “strategy” and execution of plans. As a result, good bowlers are teaming up to make a legendary lineup. Though scoring a low total may not always work, winning 6 out of 8 games is a fantastic start – and almost assures them a top 3 position if they even win 3 of their next 6 games. My bet is that Sunrisers will pip Kings XI to no. 2 in the table, despite their limited batting ability.
BANGALORE AT THE BOTTOM
It might be bewildering on paper, but RCB might be the first team in IPL history to finish at the bottom of the table for two seasons in a row. Last year was awful for Kohli’s top-heavy and flashy team, but this year is turning out to be equally bad – despite AB de Villiers’ fine form and Quinton de Kock’s lusty blows at the top. Kohli’s face in the field against KKR, while his fielders dropped catches and let balls through their legs, said a story that suggests that his team lacks the basics to be competitive. No matter how many runs they make, the bowlers – led by an underperforming Yuzvendra Chahal – seem to be lacking the consistency, mirroring the career struggles of pace spearhead, Umesh Yadav. RCB has won 2 of their first 7 games, and they aren’t exactly known to make roaring MI-style comebacks.
NO MUMBAI MIRACLE
One senses that Rohit Sharma’s three-time champions will not be able to emulate their miraculous 2015 comeback this season after losing 5 of their first 7 matches. With Pollard out of the team, and much of the batting resting on the captain’s shoulders, it’ll be imperative for JP Duminy and Ewan Lewis to share the batting responsibilities. But with Bumrah and the Pandya brothers not as accurate as before, and with Mumbai consistently struggling to finish off an innings with a bang, I see a limp mid-table finish for a team that will fall behind the pressure at some point. This just isn’t their year.
DD OVER KKR
It’s probably a foolhardy prediction – but I expect the bottom-of-table Delhi Daredevils to hit back after the exit of Gautam Gambhir, under new captain Shreyas Iyer, and squeeze into the playoffs over Kolkata Knight Riders. Rahul Dravid’s class of ex U-19 youngsters – led by Iyer himself, Rishabh Pant and now Prithvi Shaw – make up the core of the inexperienced batting lineup, which makes DD one of the exciting teams going forward with little to lose. With Glenn Maxwell aching to break loose and Trent Boult lending a world-class touch in the field, it’s a matter of time before the Daredevils defy their history and mount a memorable comeback. Kolkata has the better all-rounders – with Narine and Russell in the ranks – but it’s DD that has the raw skill and hunger to light up this IPL. Expect Shaw and Iyer to lead the way.
1. Chennai Super Kings
2. Sunrisers Hyderabad
3. Kings XI Punjab
4. Delhi Daredevils
5. Kolkata Knight Riders
6. Mumbai Indians
7. Rajasthan Royals
8. Royal Challengers Bangalore