When MS Dhoni, the former Chennai Super Kings captain, one of the most successful T20 captains of all time, was put in charge of the new Rising Pune Supergiant franchise last year, many expected his former glory to directly translate to the new team. So what if it wasn’t yellow anymore? He had half his loyal band of merry men with him – Faf du Plessis, Ravichandran Ashwin and coach Stephen Fleming.
Midway through the 2016 season, it was apparent that Dhoni was a tired man, and his equilibrium had been disturbed, and the new set of players would take time to become a squad as smooth and natural as the Chennai one. They finished seventh after being at the bottom for much of the group stages – with Dhoni finally managing to finish their last game in his trademark last-ball manner. Till then, he hadn’t managed much, and his team had been ravaged by injuries, exits and new signings. But the Australians had made a mark in their brief stints – Steve Smith, Adam Zampa and Usman Khwaja.
Fast forward to 2017, and we’ve just come off a classic Dhoni finish again. In their sixth game against the Sunrisers Hyderabad, Dhoni made the improbable probable after slamming purple-cap holder Bhuvneshwar Kumar all over the park to register his team’s third win of the campaign. His captain, Steve Smith, watched from the boundary ropes as the Indian clocked back a few years to remind people why he is still relevant. A stunning unbeaten 63 means that Pune this time isn’t rooted to the bottom of the table. It is in the position to challenge for a playoff spot midway through, and is only now finding its mojo.
World no. 1 limited overs bowler Imran Tahir was signed as a last-minute replacement for all-rounder Mitchell Marsh. This turned out to be happy chance for the management, as he came in and immediately made an impact with his exuberance and skill in the shortest format. His running celebration after taking a wicket alone is worth the price of a ticket. He has kept Zampa out of the team.
Dhoni’s sudden form augurs well for a team that has no hitter but Ben Stokes in their middle order. With Smith and Dhoni both serving as anchors for most part, it’s important that one of them has the ability to break loose when needed. Both are unorthodox batsmen, and perform better on tougher pitches as compared to most. Smith, who is quite alien to this format, is doing well to absorb Dhoni’s leadership nuances on the field too.
India’s almost-man Manoj Tiwary looks in fluent form, and the former KKR batsman looks a good necessary addition to the middle order. He has kickstarted a few dead innings already, and is resourceful and crafty enough to nudge his seniors into action towards the end of every innings.
Rahul Tripathi, a little-known Maharastrian opener, is setting the stage ablaze with some superb cameos at the top. He has batted fearlessly, keeping the rate high so that Smith and the others have time to settle in after his departure. Maybe he should look to bat long now, and truly announce his name on the world stage.
Ajinkya Rahane has carried on his scratchy test form into his favourite T20 tournament. He looked in great touch last season, but except for his opening-day fifty against Mumbai Indians, he has failed to fire, which is why the onus is more on his partner Tripathi. India will hope he comes good soon, because after the injury to KL Rahul, he will most likely be Rohit Sharma’s (who is also out of touch) opening partner at the Champions Trophy in England in June.
Ben Stokes, the most expensive signing in T20 history, hasn’t been as impactful and consistent as his price suggests. When he has bad games, it’s with both bat and ball, and perhaps Smith needs to bowl him out between the last ten overs to get the maximum out of his pace. His batting hasn’t been as fearsome either, with just 110 runs from six innings. He will be retained, however, to prove his worth over the second stretch of group games.
The injuries piled on even before their campaign began – no Faf du Plessis, no Mitchell Marsh, no Ashwin. As a result, the replacements, Dan Christian and Tahir have had to alter the balance of a team initially built around their openers. Former Royal Challengers Bangalore and Delhi Daredevils opener Mayank Agarwal hasn’t been capitalizing on his opportunities either.
Also, the team has no batsman in the top ten run-getters this year, with Smith at 11 after a strong start – with each team having at least one or two batsmen otherwise. Rahane was expected to be in the top five, as was Stokes. Adam Zampa has to find a place in the team, too.