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Why IPL 2021 could be Punjab Kings’ Season
Jay Dansinghani analyses why this season could go differently for the Punjab franchise
Let’s not sugarcoat it: Punjab Kings are the least successful of the eight IPL franchises. Having made the playoffs just twice in thirteen seasons, it’s as if they’re just there to make up the numbers.
Last season, they were plagued with familiar issues caused in no small part by a haphazard auction strategy that failed to plug major gaps in their roster. To make matters worse, a trio of heart-breaking losses left them one agonizing win away from an elusive playoff spot.
Despite a quiet build-up to their season, this may just be the strongest squad that Punjab Kings have assembled since their run to the final in 2014, and it could propel them into the playoffs and beyond.
Key players at their T20 peak
Opener Mayank Agarwal had a breakout season in 2020, averaging 38.5 and striking at 156.5. He’d never scored as many runs in a season before that, and he’d never come close to scoring them as quickly. When you consider the pressure he would’ve been under with Punjab’s shallow batting line-up and an overly cautious KL Rahul at the other end, his strike rate begins to look even more astounding.
With the ball, Mohammad Shami has found a role for himself as a top-and-tail bowler, who is frugal and incisive with the new ball and dependable at the death. His pinpoint-accurate yorkers in the Super Over victory over Mumbai will be etched into the memory of Punjab’s fans for a long time to come, and a deeper dive into his numbers demonstrates how much he has improved as a T20 bowler.
Prior to the 2019 season, he averaged 120.5 with the ball in the first six overs, striking once every 81 deliveries, while leaking 8.93 runs an over and conceding a boundary every 4.05 balls.
In his first season for Punjab in 2019, he was far more economical in the Powerplay, conceding his runs at 7.56 per over, while conceding a boundary every 4.84 balls. In 2020, however, he developed a knack for taking wickets, striking once every 26.6 balls while improving his Balls per Boundary ratio, and maintaining a marginally better economy rate.
While sceptics may attribute his improvement with the new ball to friendlier fast bowling conditions in the UAE, his improvement at the death is harder to argue with. Since being signed by Punjab, on average, he’s conceded half a run less at the death, while picking up a wicket every 9 balls, compared to every 13.5 deliveries before 2019.
They know that Gayle at three works
With just the solitary victory in their first seven games of the 2020 season, Punjab was dead in the water.
Enter ‘The Universe Boss.’
Gayle’s inclusion, albeit at the unfamiliar number three position, breathed life into the Kings’ campaign as he played a key role in five consecutive wins. In fact, number three suited both Gayle and his team so well that he was kept there as Mandeep Singh slotted in as opener in the absence of Mayank Agarwal.
Given his power and belligerence, Gayle doesn’t fit the archetype of an anchor. Yet, he occupies the crease for as long as you’d expect an anchor to while possessing the ability to explode like nobody else in the world can. This is exactly what Punjab needed last season with their paper thin batting line up.
Gayle was destructive anytime he walked in with the field still up. In the middle overs, he bided his time, shielding a brittle lower order before kicking into third gear at the death. He might be inching closer to his 42nd birthday, but you’d be brave to bet against another strong season from the Jamaican.
Jhye Richardson at the death
Two words: Rahul Tewatia.
In case you need a reminder, Sheldon Cottrell was carted for five sixes in an over by the gritty southpaw, who reduced the required equation from 51 off 18 balls to 21 off 12, eventually propelling Rajasthan over the line in a comeback for the ages.
With the acquisition of Australian speedster Jhye Richardson, Punjab appears to have traded up. In his last two BBL seasons, Richardson has picked up a wicket every 22 balls in the Powerplay, conceding just over a run a ball. At the death, he’s only conceded 8.87 runs an over, picking up a wicket every 11 deliveries.
In theory, Richardson should provide similar value to Cottrell with the new ball, but he also gives Punjab another bankable option at the death in addition to Mohammed Shami.
If Shami and Richardson can control the first six overs and the death, Punjab’s spinners can benefit from the pressure created at either end of the innings to put the squeeze on opposition batters.
For the last five seasons, the Kings have struggled to find designated finishers. This has forced their top order to bat more conservatively in the hopes that they can explode once they get settled. For obvious reasons, this is a risky strategy.
To be fair, a world-beating finisher is a rare commodity. In Fabian Allen, however, Punjab may have found the next big globetrotting finisher. The Jamaican strikes at 157.5 across his T20 career to go along with tight, if not threatening, left-arm spin.
Even if Punjab determines that Allen the spinner is too raw for the IPL, they can play an extra overseas quick in Riley Meredith or Chris Jordan, making up the difference with new recruit Shahrukh Khan or Deepak Hooda. While Shahrukh comes in with an ever-growing reputation as one of the best finishers on the domestic circuit, Hooda recorded a career-best 62 off 30 in Punjab’s final game of 2020.
Team balance still an issue
Despite this optimism, Punjab Kings will have concerns over the balance of their XI. Every single one of the numerous all-rounders on their roster has a noticeably weaker secondary suit. Despite being the best off-spinner in the country after Ravi Ashwin, Jalaj Saxena strikes at 87 with the bat in T20 cricket. Moises Henriques has barely bowled a ball for New South Wales or Sydney Sixers this season. Deepak Hooda has not played a single competitive game since IPL 2020 after falling out with Baroda teammate and skipper Krunal Pandya.
Even with all their improvements in personnel, how Punjab Kings navigate the tightrope of team balance may well dictate their fortunes this season.