IPL 2021: Halfway through, is gulf between top and bottom halves wider than ever?

By | May 3, 2021

IPL 2021: Halfway through, is gulf between top and bottom halves wider than ever?

Halfway into the league stage, the spread of points on the IPL 2021 table is identical to what it was at the corresponding stage in 2020: three pace-setters are bunched closely at the top, with a strong contender a little behind the pace in fourth; there are two teams within one win of being in the top-half, while the bottom two appear quite distant from the pack.

In the final standings in 2020, in the UAE, there were only two points – one win – separating third from eighth; it got really tight, closer than anything the IPL had seen before.

And yet, even the most giddy optimists among the IPL viewership will find it hard to predict a similarly tense finish this time around, based on where IPL 2021 stands after Sunday, 2 May – 29 games into the 56-match league phase.

Why? Because if you break it down, there’s a gulf between the upper and lower halves of this table, quite unlike what we’ve been accustomed to in this league.

Delhi Capitals entered this season having lost their captain, Shreyas Iyer, to injury. They were without Axar Patel, one of their premium spinners, for the first four games. By the time he completed his first outing, it had emerged that Ravichandra Ashwin was exiting the tournament bubble. Delhi are also yet to have fielded Anrich Nortje – their second-highest wicket-taker and one of the finds of IPL 2020.

The ‘Dad’s Army’ at Chennai Super Kings is only half a year older to what it was through the trial that was UAE 2020 – the average age of their playing XI is still in excess of 30 – but the intent has been ingrained into the batting unit. It was probably the only way out anyway, because, as they found out the hard way in their most recent outing, their bowling is unlikely to win matches outside of a very specific set of factors.

Royal Challengers Bangalore’s best start to an IPL season in, well, forever, has been a tale, largely, of AB and Hail Mary… with a few dollops of Glenn Maxwell, and one sprinkle of Devdutt Padikkal and Virat Kohli for garnishing. After moving out of Chennai, they, too, are finding out what many might have already guessed about their bowling before the season.

Mumbai Indians are fourth, with four wins out of seven – and three of those victories have been heists that could make for an award-winning series.

Despite that, it is this quartet – DC, CSK, RCB, MI – that is already primed to make the cut for the playoffs. Why?

Because the closest challengers, both level on six points apiece as things stand, are Rajasthan Royals and Punjab Kings. Rajasthan have lost half their overseas contingent to injuries or withdrawals – two of whom happen to be MVP winners from recent IPL seasons, Ben Stokes and Jofra Archer – and their bid to bring in reinforcements is being scuppered too. Punjab, while changing their name, retained the famed aspect of their game – never knowing what their best combination is, and almost never arriving at a steady-enough solution – and are now set to be without their captain, KL Rahul, for the second half of the campaign.

Kieron Pollard (87 not out off 34 balls) celebrates after guiding Mumbai Indians to a last-ball victory over arch-rivals Chennai Super Kings. Sportzpics

Kieron Pollard (87 not out off 34 balls) celebrates after guiding Mumbai Indians to a last-ball victory over arch-rivals Chennai Super Kings. Sportzpics

Beneath these two unfortunate could-be challengers lie the competition’s most successful team not abbreviated as MI or CSK – how frustrating has it been to be a Kolkata Knight Riders camper, anyone? The irony of a team helmed by Brendon McCullum and Eoin Morgan starting each batting innings with virtually no intent isn’t lost on anyone; KKR have done nothing to make matters less complicated with their convoluted handling of everyone in their middle order.

And then, we have Sunrisers Hyderabad, whose journey leading into and during this IPL had been a beginner’s guide to harakiri… even before their decision to sack the man who had hit 500+ runs for five successive seasons, scored nearly 30 percent of all runs since joining the team, and basically been the embodiment of their success story.

There is, undeniably, an element of bad fortune in the plummeting sagas of the bottom-four this IPL. Where would RR be if they had Messrs Archer and Stokes for the company? How do PBKS even attempt to replace the IPL’s most voluminous run-scorer since 2018? What can KKR do about the frequent fitness fallouts of their two most storied stars? Who could have thought SRH would lose both their primary Indian seam-bowling options?

But you know how they say you make your own luck? This quartet, much more than the other four, should have seen it coming.

The Royals have known since 2018 about the gulf between their English trio (Archer, Stokes, Jos Buttler) and their remaining overseas options, which, coupled with their historic tendency of being light on the Indian experience, makes the Englishmen irreplaceable. Yet, outside of the addition of Chris Morris, what did they do to fix the imbalance?

Punjab, the undisputed panic kings of the tournament, spent half of IPL 2020 arriving on an optimum XI (which was, to be honest, hardly the most optimal T20 XI you would make). They approached the auction with a clear vision, and spent INR 22 crore on Aussie pace recruits Jhye Richardson and Riley Meredith… only to bench them after a few Wankhede outings.

The Knight Riders knew well enough, through UAE 2020, that Lockie Ferguson ought to be locked in their first-choice line-up, and Sunil Narine probably locked outside it. It’s also been made amply clear to them, over the last couple of years, that saving Andre Russell for the absolute end generally means KKR’s endgame. Yet, seven games in, what have we seen so far?

David Warner and Kane Williamson. Image: Sportzpics for IPL

David Warner has made way for Kane Williamson as SRH skipper. Image: Sportzpics for IPL

Sunrisers – the only team to have made the playoffs every year since 2016 – had seen their once-effective assortment of cutter-yielding seamers worked over by opponents in recent campaigns, yet entered another season without a high-pace option. When the chance presented itself, following Mitchell Marsh’s withdrawal, they decided to rope in a top-order overseas batsman to join a dressing room already featuring David Warner, Jonny Bairstow, and Kane Williamson. And then, of course, the whole Warner warzone.

Even one year with squad issues gone unaddressed can be enough for a team to be found out in the IPL. Just ask the Super Kings, right?

Of the top-four, CSK and RCB, based on where things ended last season, would have looked the likeliest to slip further – but they made their adjustments, commissioned their tweaks, in personnel and play.

As for the two remaining sides, the finalists from IPL 2020 were already quite ahead of the chasing pack weren’t they?

Think about it. DC have been able to be without Iyer and Axar and Ashwin and Mishra and Nortje, and with a yet-to-fire Rabada, and have been benevolent in granting multiple opportunities to Steven Smith and Tom Curran, and still find themselves in a position where they could lose half their remaining games and still finish in the top-two.

And MI? They barely showed up for the first leg of the season. They have looked rattled in their decision-making for the first time since 2018. Yet, against KKR, SRH, and CSK, they have pulled off miracles for the ages, and that’s been enough to keep them in the green. It’s a giant in slumber, is MI, and still strong enough for more than half the field.

Of course, this is still the IPL – the tournament best equipped to make any and all oracles eat humble pie – and so you can’t rule out this author possibly facing the same predicament, since there is, still, a long way to go.

But unless there is a drastic change for the lower half of the table – be it in their form, and/or fortune, and fickle-mindedness – this could be a rather long second half for RR, PBKS, KKR, and SRH.

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