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Each IPL Team’s Tactical MVP

Ben Jones takes a look at some of the most tactically interesting players for the upcoming IPL season.

T20 cricket is the least individual of cricket’s formats. As much as one player can score a devastating hundred to win any given game, or run through a side with four overs of aggressive bowling, for a team to succeed over a season, they have to combine and function as a single unit. Some players might not standout on paper for their quality alone, and might not win a game off their own back or even get close, but they help the unit as a whole work at its best. Here is a suggestion for who that player may be for each team in IPL 2022.

Delhi Capitals – Sarfaraz Khan

Delhi have built a powerful batting line-up, with Prithvi Shaw and David Warner arguably the most exciting opening partnership in the competition. The next wave of attack, another LH/RH combination of Mitchell Marsh and Rishabh Pant, is likely to give Delhi a relentless aggression with the bat, ably supported and buffered by all-rounders Axar Patel and Shardul Thakur down the order. 

However, their bowling attack looks a touch on the weak side. Despite the presence of Anrich Nortje who has starred in recent seasons for the Capitals, Axar is a strong defensive bowler but has issues against left-handed batsmen, Kuldeep Yadav has been a shadow of his former self for some time now, and while he’s a useful role player Shardul Thakur is not an elite seamer in his own right. Ideally, Delhi would like to have a second overseas seamer in their attack, most likely with Mustafizur Rahman slotting in alongside Nortje.

In order to do that, Delhi will only be able to play two overseas bats, with Warner then one of Marsh or Rovman Powell. This relies on a lower order Indian batter being not just a solid role player, but a potential match-winner, and that’s where Sarfaraz Khan comes in. His IPL career has been relatively limited so far, but his pace-hitting numbers in the competition are outstanding. In the expanded league, he has the quality to be a thriving starter.

If Delhi do look towards this balance, then Sarfaraz will be working alongside – or competing with – Lalit Yadav, a similarly pace orientated hitter who has had slightly less exposure to IPL cricket, but would offer Delhi similar support. If Pant and Ponting can get one of these two firing, then Delhi could be a really exciting side with plenty of quality in all departments.

Gujarat Titans – Shubman Gill

On paper, the standout aspect of the Gujarat Titans side is their bowling attack, particularly the pairing of the tournament’s quickest bowler, Lockie Ferguson, with the tournament’s best spinner, Rashid Khan. Add that to the experienced Mohammed Shami, the highly rated Yash Dayal, and a smattering of all-rounders, and you’ve got an attack which should be capable of challenging most batting orders with a range of weapons.

Naturally, as a team’s bowling strength increases, the value of anchoring batters follows suit. Slower scoring players, who offer more consistent, higher returns in terms of runs, naturally raise the floor of what your batting order can do; by being less explosive, they also lower the ceiling, but when your side is blessed with a group of bowlers capable of regularly defending 160, then ensuring you reach that total five times out of six becomes hugely useful. 

As such, the importance of Shubman Gill is clear. A classical, elegant strokeplayer who sometimes struggles to kick into the higher gears, Gill is in many ways a natural anchor – though that comes with it’s own issues. When it came to the question of attacking intent early on in an innings, the former KKR opener seemed to clash with coach Brendon McCullum, a contrast in styles which peaked with the Kiwi stating that ‘If you can’t change a man, change the man’, a clear reference to Gill’s inability or unwillingness to go hard early on. 

While the youngster did improve in this regard, and clearly has the range of strokes to be a reasonably quick scorer, his base level skills are far better suited to the low heartbeat, conservatively-minded batting style which feels like the perfect foil for Gujarat’s balance. Jason Roy’s decision to drop out of the tournament only exaggerates Gill’s importance; the Englishman has improved significantly of late when it comes to playing longer innings, and in an inexperienced batting order the emphasis on Gill to manage the first 15 overs  – at which point, over to Hardik Pandya – will be a key element of Gujarat’s tactical approach. 

Royal Challengers Bangalore – Mahipal Lomror

The headlines from RCB’s auction were the purchase of two high profile overseas players, Wanindu Hasaranga and Faf du Plessis. The former was no surprise, given the Sri Lankan’s excellence with the ball for a number of years, allied with a solid batting record; in a tournament without Shadab Khan, high quality leg spin all-rounders are among the rarest commodities around, and paying a premium is necessary. Recruiting du Plessis certainly raised a few more eyebrows, the 7cr price tag in particular drawing comparisons with cheaper and probably superior overseas opening options, namely David Warner at 6.5cr and Jonny Bairstow at 6.75cr. The signing has also left the RCB batting line-up rather one-dimensional, with a long run of right-handers, all of whom (barring Glenn Maxwell) are significantly weaker against spin. 

There are however ways around this weakness. One option to remedy it could be by moving the most vulnerable of the group, Virat Kohli, down towards something like a finishing position, where his underrated power and hitting ability against pace could be exploited without his achilles heel of spin through the middle dragging him down – however, such a move is a politically unlikely one.

That’s where Mahipal Lomror plays a crucial role. The powerful left-hander will likely bat through the middle, where his preference for facing spin can disrupt opposition plans to target Kohli and du Plessis with SLA through the middle overs. Lomror is by no means an elite player in this role, but his numbers are encouraging; a scoring rate of 8.3rpo against spin in IPL is backed up by solid numbers in other competitions. While it does highlight a flaw in RCB’s recruitment that they are having to gamble on this significant position, there is evidence to suggest he can perform a reasonable role as a support act, where even gentle success would amplify the (undoubted) quality of those around him. Much of this can also be said for Anuj Rawat, another left-hander but one likely to open the batting alongside Kohli or du Plessis, but Lomror’s probable position in the middle order makes his role even more significant.

Lucknow Super Giants – Quinton de Kock

Losing Mark Wood to injury was a huge frustration for the Andy Flower and co, given that his presence saw them boast one of the most rounded and threatening attacks in the league, matching it with a strong and varied batting line-up. Replacing him with an overseas quick – quick being the operative word – of sufficient quality, will go a long way to defining their season.

Another key element which does leap out is the absence of left-handers from the bulk of their batting order, with Quinton de Kock (opening the batting) the sole lefty, apart from the likely presence of Krunal Pandya down at No.7, or thereabouts. It poses an interesting quandary. Ideally, part of de Kock’s role in such a side would be to bat with slightly more caution early on, extending his innings throughout the middle overs so as to protect the RHB-heavy middle order from being bombed with SLA and leg spin. Indeed, that may well be how things play out. 

However, it’s far from what you expect from de Kock, who is renowned for his aggressive starts and attacking intent, and a (pleasing) disregard for the value of his own wicket. In that sense, he’s an ideal partner for KL Rahul, who despite his ongoing commitment to vast run totals has become something of a slow accumulator, best placed alongside an aggressive, Powerplay-maximiser in the opener overs of the innings.

It also places de Kock in an interesting personal position. With Rahul alongside him, the South African’s keeping will not be a key factor in his selection, potentially leaving him vulnerable to Evin Lewis taking his place, another ultra-aggressive left-hander at the top of the order. He needs to walk the tightrope of taking the pressure off his captain with some rapid starts, but can’t expose the middle order too regularly. Not an easy one.

Rajasthan Royals – Riyan Parag

Like almost every team in the auction, Rajasthan’s business had positives and negatives. The positives were the creation of a powerful batting order, likely comprising Devdutt Padikkal, Jos Buttler, Yashasvi Jaiswal, Sanju Samson, and Shimron Hetmyer. Similarly, the spin axis of Ravichandran Ashwin and Yuzvendra Chahal is highly experienced, as well as being complementary. There is plenty to like about the core of the Rajasthan XI. 

However, the question of how they balance their side is a hard one to answer. Going into the final hours of the auction, RR were incapable of delivering a team with enough batting and bowling, something they were clearly aware of – they went hard after Romario Shepherd and failed after a 7.5cr bid, despite footage from their YouTube series declaring they’d pay “absolute max 6cr”. From there, they were struggling. They responded by hoovering up three overseas all-rounders: Jimmy Neesham, Nathan Coulter-Nile, and Daryl Mitchell. 

All three have their strengths (Neesham and Mitchell are both solid hitters, while Coulter-Nile is an impressively versatile bowler when fully fit), but it’s hard to see an XI where two of these players fit in, which given their skewed skillsets would be the best way to get balance. It’s far from an ideal situation, and represented something close to panic-buying at the end of a tough two days in Bangalore.

That’s where Riyan Parag’s importance comes to the fore. As a domestic top six batsman who can also deliver useful overs of off spin, were Parag to have a successful season then RR would be working from a much more stable base. With a quality bat like Parag at No.6, they could opt for either the bowling strength of Coulter-Nile at No.7 (and embrace a slightly longer tail, albeit one with Ashwin just in behind), or the potential hitting depth of Neesham at No.7 (and accepting a slightly weaker ‘fifth’ bowler). If Parag’s bowling in particular is not up to scratch, then less pleasing solutions – Ashwin at No.7, two overseas all-rounders, weakening that powerful batting line up – appear more likely, and things look far worse for Samson’s team.

Parag is a young player with almost unparalleled exposure to IPL cricket for someone of his age, but he does need to deliver tangible returns sooner rather than later. He has been backed to the hilt by Rajasthan for a long time now, recognised as a talented individual in a role where India typically struggle to produce players. He has, consistently, failed to reward Rajasthan’s faith. If he can’t improve this year then RR could find themselves in a lot of trouble.

Chennai Super Kings – Devon Conway

Returning champions Chennai Super Kings will have been very pleased with their auction work. In a season where the tournament has expanded, you would expect the overall quality of teams to fall slightly as a consequence of talent redistribution, making remaining roughly the same level quite an achievement – on paper, Chennai appear to have done just that. While their enviable glut of bowling all-rounders has been weakened by the loss of Shardul Thakur, the bulk of the side which came out on top last time out is still very much there. 

The other major departure for Chennai was 2021 Orange Cap winner Faf du Plessis, who succeeds Virat Kohli as RCB skipper. As well as the obvious weight of runs he managed, the South African played a key role for CSK in managing the opposition’s high pace quicks, his red ball base perhaps adding to his strength against this particular threat. CSK have some enviable spin hitters with weaknesses against those quicker bowlers, none more so than Moeen Ali, and shepherding them through the tougher passages of high pace was a key feature of du Plessis’ role. 

With his departure, much of that responsibility shifts to his ostensible replacement, the New Zealand left-hander Devon Conway. An opening batter but flexible in the middle order, Conway has a slightly more middling record against high pace in T20 cricket when compared to du Plessis, but he still boasts an average on the right side of 35 and a strike rate above 130. While his overall game can sometimes be criticised for being on the slow side – his record coming with the traditional “New Zealand tax” – Conway is skilled enough to fill the Faf-shaped hole in CSK’s top order, and his left-handedness adds an extra layer as well. If Dhoni’s men are to remain the formidable outfit they were for much of last season, Conway has a job to do.

Sunrisers Hyderabad – Abhishek Sharma

Despite ending with a competitive first XI, Sunrisers Hyderabad’s recruitment puzzled plenty over the auction weekend. In classic SRH-Moody style, they loaded up on domestic seamers, with the retained Umran Malik joined by the returning Bhuvneshwar Kumar and T Natarajan, as well as the exciting high speed youngster Kartik Tyagi. However, in previous iterations this focus has generally been joined by a focus on high quality overseas batters, most notably David Warner. This time, they have thrown their weight behind Kane Williamson, who at 14cr is significantly overpaid compared to his actual T20 record, even accounting for a “captaincy tax”. Aiden Markram is an interesting T20 project in development, and they have (in Tyagi, Malik, Samad, Abhishek) perhaps the most interesting crop of Indian youngsters in the tournament, but it was hard to shake the feeling that SRH failed to nail their auction strategy.

It’s one of those youngsters whose role comes to attention here. Abhishek Sharma, the left-handed opener and SLA bowler, is one of a number of players that SRH brought back to the franchise despite mixed returns in recent seasons. Paying 6.5cr to see him return to the Ranjiv Gandhi Stadium is a clear indication of the faith SRH have in the youngster, but it’s faith they need to see repaid. With Williamson a lock as an overseas, almost certainly alongside Nicholas Pooran and probably Aiden Markram, SRH need their starting Indian batters to thrive – because they can’t strengthen that area. Similarly, a combination of Washington Sundar and one of the overseas all-rounders (Romario Shepherd, Sean Abbott, Marco Jansen) is needed to balance the side, leaving little wiggle-room there. SRH can wait for Abhishek to become the elite IPL opener which his early numbers suggest he could be – but in terms of solid, replacement-level numbers, they need him now.

Kolkata Knight Riders – Ajinkya Rahane

There is always an element of idiocy to predicting team strength before a ball is bowled in any T20 tournament, with far too much going on beneath the surface for anyone outside the dressing room to be confident in getting the full picture. However, it’s an element we have to embrace on occasion. On paper, you would suggest that no team in the 2022 IPL has dropped in quality compared to the previous season more than Kolkata Knight Riders. Finalists in 2021, KKR have lost their skipper Eoin Morgan, their gun overseas quick in Lockie Ferguson, their stylish opener Shubman Gill, and the ultra-aggressive Rahul Tripathi. Their replacements are, in every area barring Tripathi out Shreyas Iyer in, downgrades. 

In many ways, no signing was more representative of their poor business than that of Ajinkya Rahane. The veteran right-hander has often been shoe-horned into T20 sides for reasons of “experience” and perhaps off-field opportunities, but he is not of the level to demand a starting position in the IPL – even an expanded one – on ability alone. Him starting for your side is an illustration of poor recruitment. However, what he does do is potentially mask KKR’s achilles heel, that nobody in the side can play high pace. For almost every member of the likely batting order, the bowling plan is the same: high pace, short balls, keep them away from spin.

For years, KKR masked the weakness of such players with the presence of Chris Lynn, an historically brilliant pace hitter who dovetailed with Narine to form one of the most impressive opening pairs the IPL has seen. It would be laughable to compare Rahane to Lynn, but the Indian’s record against high pace is strong, if not explosive – he has the ability to see of those spells, if not take them down. In that light, if KKR do end up in the unfortunate of having to start Rahane, he may at least serve a useful function of shielding their top and middle order from the high pace which destroys them. If he can do that, then maybe the signing will work out after all.

Punjab Kings – Arshdeep Singh

Punjab’s auction work was always going to be eye-catching, given the size of their purse and the apparent license for rebuilding following the departure of KL Rahul and Ravi Bishnoi. On that front, it delivered: Liam Livingstone and Jonny Bairstow arrive with big-hitting reputations, and sit as part of a batting line-up which, despite lacking a particularly wide range of skills, is certainly one of the most powerful in the tournament.

However, for Punjab fans, the bowling attack should be a cause for concern. Kagiso Rabada is rarely pictured without a Purple Cap, but his effectiveness with the new ball has been poor, with a large sample size to go from. Rahul Chahar is a solid domestic spinner, but the rest of the attack need to perform well above expectation, or else they look toothless. The fact that Punjab were willing to spend such big money on Wanindu Hasaranga shines yet more light on this weakness – arguably, they never recovered from that miss.

The weakness of the bowling attack is most keenly felt in the Powerplay. Only one man in the squad as a strike rate below 20 in the opening overs of the innings, and even that is from the relatively small sample of 21 innings. Arshdeep, the young Indian left-armer, is a swing bowler who relies on early movement, but at 23 he’s arguably the most attacking bowling in the Punjab side. Kumble has set up the side to bat deep and be aggressive, but if you can’t take wickets then teams will come back at you hard when they have their turn at the crease. Arshdeep is far from an elite option in this role, but he is the best that PBKS have managed to get – he needs to play above himself, and deliver a sizeable haul of Powerplay wickets.

A side note: Punjab have also made the bold decision to focus on starters, rather than giving themselves any great squad depth. Signing only seven overseas can be a canny move if it allows you to sign a higher quality of player, but with the three likely bench spots occupied by Nathan Ellis, Bhanuka Rajapaksa, and Benny Howell, it’s hard to argue this has been the case. Given the improving situation regarding the covid-19 pandemic, and the improved optics of the IPL being played in India and in front of crowds, it’s easy to forget that the virus is still very much with us, and it would be a surprise were the tournament to be completed without any players being affected by covid to some degree. By going all in on starters and reserving little bench strength, Punjab are perhaps more vulnerable to the effects of any absences, than any other team.

Mumbai Indians – Fabian Allen

The golden era of Mumbai, 2013-2020, was driven by many players. The yorkers of Lasith Malinga, the emergence of Jasprit Bumrah, the leadership of Rohit Sharma, the list goes on. However, what arguably defined that run of five titles in eight years was the core of three players: Kieron Pollard, Hardik Pandya, and Krunal Pandya. In his own right, Pollard is arguably the greatest T20 player of all time, but his relationship with two domestic all-rounders (one a better batsman, one a better bowler) made balancing the MI side remarkably easy regardless of which players came and went from year to year. Overseas spots could be spent on specific players for specific roles, with the tactical work largely done by local players, and local players of the highest quality.

Yet as we go into the 2022 season, the Pandya brothers are no longer there in the Mumbai dressing room, Pollard the one survivor of that iconic middle order. Hardik’s replacement, Tim David, is potentially as exciting in terms of hitting alone, but he lacks the Indian’s bowling ability, and does take up an overseas spot. To replace Krunal in the bowling all-rounder role, Mumbai have brought in Fabian Allen, and Daniel Sams. At the moment, it isn’t clear whether they’ll start with the Jamaican or the Australian as the preferred player in this role, but both are solid performers who will do a job.

However, it’s Fabian Allen who draws the eye here. Sams is a versatile bowler who can operate in all phases, but Allen is a rare spinner who can be effective bowling in the Powerplay. Until Jofra Archer arrives next year, Mumbai are surprisingly weak in that phase, relying on the inconsistent Jaydev Unadkat, or the Bumrah-Mills axis which is far better deployed in the second half of the innings. MI clearly recognised this slight hole in their deployment, losing out on Marco Jansen despite their best efforts to bring the South African back to the Wankhede. If Allen can operate consistently in the Powerplay, building pressure for the other more high-profile bowlers to exploit, then he goes a long way to creating a tight, clear strategy for Mumbai’s bowling innings.

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