Not every debutant franchise has done well in IPL. In 2011, Pune Warriors India and Kochi Tuskers Kerala finished eighth and ninth in a 10-team tournament. In 2016, Rising Pune Supergiant finished seventh out of eight teams, and though Gujarat Lions finished top of the table, they lost both qualifiers in the playoffs.
It has been entirely different for Gujarat Titans and Lucknow Super Giants. In their
first season, they top the IPL points table and are almost through to the playoffs. That’s a huge deal because their consistency contrasts with the wide-ranging problems that normally weigh down franchises in their first season.
IPL’s most expensive teams, Titans and Super Giants hit the league with clear team plans. They picked Hardik Pandya, a proven all-rounder and face of Gujarat cricket, and KL Rahul, an all-format India captain-in-waiting, as skippers. They also entrusted old IPL hands Ashish Nehra and Gautam Gambhir the task of running the sides.
Leading up to the auction, and then the tournament, there was considerable doubt over Hardik Pandya’s role. He was expected to be a lower order enforcer with the bat but bowling fitness was under intense scrutiny. Till the match he hurt his hamstring—the all-rounder had lost his India spot after back surgery that prevented him from bowling—he had bowled his full quota of overs in four matches, taking four wickets, twice striking in his first over. He bowled full tilt, opening the bowling with Mohammed Shami in three matches and lending the Titans bowling an advantage many other teams miss.
It was with the bat though that Pandya really turned it on. Taking on responsibility by promoting himself to No 4, he has scored three fifties, two of them in wins. After the auction in February, Titans’ batting had looked thin but Pandya has helped banish that notion by becoming their highest scorer with 308 runs at an average of 51.33 and strike rate of 135.68.
It hasn’t been much different with LSG. Having led Punjab Kings for the previous two seasons, KL Rahul was accustomed to the frenetic nature of T20 leadership. At a new setup, Rahul has done well to help the franchise settle down in terms of performances. A lot of that assurance has come in the 451 runs he has scored at an average of 56.37 and strike rate of 145 at the top of the order. Only behind Rajasthan Royals’ Jos Buttler on the list of run-getters this season, Rahul underlined his leadership with two very contrasting centuries against Mumbai Indians.
His first hundred—both knocks are identical 103*–at Brabourne Stadium came at a strike rate of 171.7, when the rest of the batters scored 88 off 60 balls in a total of 199. The next hundred came in more demanding circumstances as none of Rahul’s teammates scored more than 22. He dug in, batted into the last over to reach the century, contributing over 60% of the LSG total of 168. Rahul maintaining almost the same strike rate (166.1) despite teammates contributing much less proves his versatility as a batter.
Player management at its best
As much as a team’s performance is about leadership, specificity of roles and matchups, it can go haywire without the part played by the coaching staff, from picking the right players in the auction to fielding the apt eleven in different match conditions. For new franchises, it’s all the more important because even the core has been built from scratch.
Take the case of LSG, who ‘retained’ Rahul, Ravi Bishnoi and Krunal Pandya before auction. In Evin Lewis and Quinton de Kock, they then bought openers who could run away with the game. They hit the jackpot when they got two proven all-rounders in Marcus Stoinis and Jason Holder. England fast bowler Mark Wood, bought for ₹7.5 crore, pulled out due to injury but LSG’s Indian recruits are shining—Avesh Khan and Mohsin Khan are leading the pace efforts, Krunal has taken on the middle-overs spinners’ job and an uncapped player like Ayush Badoni his carving wins with belligerent batting.
Titans were dealt a blow when Jason Roy pulled out ahead of IPL. But with the immensely talented Rashid Khan, express yet underrated Lockie Ferguson, the rejuvenated David Miller and with Matthew Wade as wicketkeeper-batter, they have still done extremely well.
Both camps have many coaches and support staff but it’s evident they owe a lot of this success to the crafty Gautam Gambhir and Ashish Nehra. Head coach of Titans, Nehra has been hands-on, walking the sidelines at matches, constantly talking to the players and ensuring a very relaxed atmosphere. Hardik has said while he is captain, there is “no hierarchy in the team. “I like to grow with my teammates or people around me. That’s the reason of our success as well,” he said on Saturday.
You also get a measure of the success Titans have achieved in terms of getting the best out of their recruits, especially Indian players like Abhinav Manohar and Rahul Tewatia—who is on a match-winning spree as a finisher—and Wriddhiman Saha, who hit a match-winning 68 in a high-score chase against Sunrisers Hyderabad.
Similarly, Gambhir—a two-time IPL winning skipper with Kolkata Knight Riders—has backed players he believes can make a difference at LSG. Like encouraging Badoni to go out and finish matches in his first IPL season. Krunal has flourished as a spinner this season while Avesh has held his nerve in pressure situations.