Have the wheels come off for the Gujarat Lions? Are this season’s early pace-setters now in terminal free-fall? Three successive defeats have seen them go from looking like champions to looking like chimps.
How can they arrest this decline? They have four games left — and realistically need to win a couple to be sure of progressing. But at the moment they appear spent and finished. How can they turn it around? Here are ten things they can do to get their season back on course.
The Lions are exhausted. Their cricket is tired, their thinking processes weary and they’re moving creakily in the field. They have nearly a week off shortly — time in which to have a mental and physical holiday, to take a break, forget about cricket and recharge their batteries. But before that, they immediately have another fixture against KKR on Sunday evening.
If I were coach Brad Hodge, I’d make a bold move — take the focus away from that game, and make it plain this is not one of our two target victories. I’d rest every player who is worn out, and all those carrying niggling injuries. Thus, I’d give a game to both Dale Steyn and Andrew Tye; rest both Aaron Finch and Brendon McCullum, and possibly Dwayne Bravo too; I’d bring in my young and exciting batsmen, Ishan Kishan and Akshdeep Nath; and rest both Praveen Kumar and Dhawal Kulkarni for a couple of the spinners, probably Pravin Tambe and Shadab Jakati.
In fact, anyone who feels in need of a break can have it — with the exception of course of the captain, Suresh Raina. He must maintain his 100% appearance record in the IPL! This approach would give many of the squad a much needed run out at a time when they may be needed in the competition’s later stages if injuries occur.
I am not advocating going out to lose this game — just being prepared not to win. The bigger picture is the ultimate goal, not the short-term gain — and I am convinced by switching the focus to subsequent key battles the Lions will be better equipped to meet the challenge. It’s rather like in the US elections a candidate moving on from a state in the primaries, knowing he’s likely to lose, to begin campaigning early and ahead of your opponent in the next battleground.
Changing the side for tomorrow’s game will allow the Lions to experiment and try new things. I think they have become too rigid in their approach — and teams know what to expect. That can never be too healthy. For example, everyone is aware that Dwayne Bravo will bowl four of the last ten overs. Be bold! Change it up, Suresh. Indulge your instincts sometimes. Dwayne is capable of changing the pace of a game whenever he bowls – so if you have a dangerous opponent like Virat Kohli or David Warner blowing hot then give Dwayne an over, however early in the innings. You know he won’t let you down!
Try a new strategy
Be prepared to think outside the box. T20 cricket is too often formulaic and predictable. Be brave, Suresh and experiment with opening the bowling with the spinners; or attacking with close fielders. At most stages now, the Lions’ opponents generally know what is coming next, and can plan accordingly. I think Raina has the brain and imagination to be far more creative in his approach in the field.
Tinker with the batting order
The same applies to the batting. Adaptability is key to a fluid, successful side. The Lions succeeded in the early games with Aaron Finch at the top of the order; and when he was injured and his opening place alongside Brendon McCullum was taken by Dwayne Smith. But that pairing has failed badly for three games in a row. No one doubts their ability or class — or that they will return to form; but there is still room for flexibility. Return Finch to the top, and let either Smith or McCullum float in the middle. Or go one step further, and consider batting an accumulator like Karthik or Jadeja at the top alongside one of the power hitters. There are plenty of options — it is not too late for the Lions to explore them.
Decide what your best side is
While I advocate fluidity and flexibility in the team, it’s important that the Lions decide RIGHT NOW what their best XI is — what is their most effective combination of batting and bowling resources, and get them ready for the run-in.
Starting with the overseas stars, they seem to have settled on Finch, McCullum, Dwaynes Smith and Bravo — with James Faulkner as cover for any of those. I agree. The skipper and wicket-keeper are automatic choices; as is Jadeja. That leaves four places. I advocate they should all be bowlers. Young batsmen Kishan and Nath are promising prospects, and brilliant fielders, but in the balance of this side they would bat at eight — and that is an unnecessary waste of resource.
Kumar is another obvious choice. So is Kulkarni. He is my favourite Lions cricketer. He was not a starter this season, but having had his opportunity, he grasped it. He is whole-hearted, intelligent and brave. I think he would respond just as well as his more experienced opening bowling partner to increased responsibility. Get him to bowl more key overs, and death overs. This guy is up to it.
That leaves the spinners. Shivil Kaushik has been superb. A genuine mystery spinner, he’s tied some quality players in knots. He’s also been liable to bowl some dross too. But used wisely by his captain he is not just a run-saving bowler but a genuine wicket-taker too. I’d be prepared to use him as an attacking option and give him an over or two at the top of the innings.
I think much the same about Tambe, and would recall him and use him too as an attacking option in the early and middle overs. Without Steyn, the Lions lack a genuine wicket-taking cutting edge — but I believe these two can provide it. Alongside Bravo, Jadeja, Kumar and Kulkarni — four high-class defensive bowlers, I think the Lions will realise they have one of the most potent attacks in the competition.
Identify who you want to bowl a full quota of overs
Bravo should always bowl four, and probably Kumar and Kulkarni too. So make sure they do! It should be simple – but is amazing how many captains can get this wrong and don’t utilize their resources at their disposal to their best advantage.
Get the fielding right
The Lions should be faultless in the field – but they have become sloppy. Doubtless this is fatigue. After a rest, and fully refreshed, expect to see them firing on all cylinders.
As above. Incidents of unnecessary no-balls, running one-short, plus other silly errors in the field need to be eliminated if the Lions are to bounce back and return to the winning path.
For all the skill and strategy, luck plays a big role. Especially this year, when conditions have meant that winning the toss brings a 90% chance of victory. The Lions need to leave as little to luck as possible — but still need that coin to start falling right again for Suresh Raina. Going out to bat on Friday night amongst what appeared on the TV screen like a plague of locusts is not the sort of bad fortune the Lions need any more of.
Success breeds success; failure breeds failure. The Lions need to take that figurative and literal step back for a week, and remember the feeling they had when it was the natural thing to win. Go out and do your best on Sunday — but don’t worry about the result. Take a break; and then come back thinking, breathing, walking, talking, and PLAYING like winners. This is still their tournament to win.