IPL's final four were not tied down by past baggage | Crickit
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IPL's final four were not tied down by past baggage

May 20, 2024 10:35 PM IST

Unshackled leadership on and off the field has worked wonders for KKR, SRH, RR and RCB

There may not be a better time to illustrate what unshackled leadership comes to yield in a grinding tournament like the Indian Premier League. Pat Cummins was by no means outstanding but he kept taking pace off the ball and asked Travis Head, Abhishek Sharma and Nitish Reddy to bat as if there’s no tomorrow. His IPL average may have slumped to its lowest since 2014, but Faf du Plessis reveled in rallying around his bowlers while giving Virat Kohli the freedom to do his thing. And in Sanju Samson and Shreyas Iyer, Rajasthan Royals and Kolkata Knight Riders found characters willing to quietly prove a point.

Kolkata Knight Riders, Sunrisers Hyderabad, Rajasthan Royals and Faf du Plessis qualified for the playoffs.
Kolkata Knight Riders, Sunrisers Hyderabad, Rajasthan Royals and Faf du Plessis qualified for the playoffs.

The link between all of them? None were tied down by past baggage. Cummins was parachuted in only this year. South Africans tend to have a more positive take on defeats and du Plessis, who took over from Virat Kohli in 2022, is no different. Samson’s captaincy is an extension of his no-holds barred approach in batting, which allows for very little scope for regret. And this was as good as a new start for Iyer, having missed out 2023 due to a surgery. Also, in case you forgot, Iyer is still without a BCCI central contract. With the T20 World Cup selection looming, both Indians had nothing to lose apart from giving their best shot to winning the IPL.

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To that effect, Samson and Iyer’s leadership has been proactive, but there’s also no denying the brains working behind the scenes here. Be it opening the batting with Sunil Narine, or sending Andre Russell to bat as high as No 4, this has been a season of punts for KKR. And at its behest has been Gautam Gambhir, a fierce defendant of the ‘cricket is a team game’ theory who isn’t used to taking ‘no’ for an answer. Equally persuasive has been Kumar Sangakkara, who was not only instrumental in retaining and nurturing youngsters like Yashasvi Jaiswal, Dhruv Jurel and Riyan Parag, but also helped develop a sense of resilience that has seen Royals make the playoffs twice since he joined in 2021.

More compelling though are the stories of Sunrisers Hyderabad and RCB who took different paths to the playoffs. Picking up Travis Head for a cool 6.8 crore was an indication of which way Sunrisers were leaning in this IPL but it wasn’t till Mumbai Indians came to Hyderabad that the repercussions of that move were felt. Setting alight the IPL with a murderous 24-ball 62 out of 277 in the first week, following it up with a 41-ball hundred in a world record 287, Head was only one part of the well-oiled run machine that Sunrisers proved to be throughout the IPL. Equally belligerent has been Abhishek Sharma, the only Indian to cross 400 runs in this IPL with a strike rate of over 200.

Together, Head and Sharma have aggregated exactly 1000 runs this IPL at a strike rate of over 200 but that alone didn’t get Sunrisers here. T Natarajan is an unsung hero in this revival as well, taking 17 wickets while complementing Cummins and Bhuvneshwar Kumar. Now onto Cummins, who for someone who has never led in the IPL, had the bandwidth to not only run the show but also aggregate an economy bettered only by Jasprit Bumrah, Tushar Deshpande and Yash Dayal in this IPL. With a repertoire of slower bouncers and length balls that were impossible to force off, Cummins managed to keep the runs in check even when the pitch was great to play on. As a captain too, he embraced a new team and a new culture without any prejudice. “I didn't know many guys coming into this season, but we have played great cricket and had some fun,” Cummins had said after Sunrisers chased down 215 in Sunday’s last round.

Then there is du Plessis, a true T20 journeyman, soaking up every sort of experience at Rising Pune Supergiants and Chennai Super Kings before coming to RCB and relieving Kohli of his captaincy. It couldn’t have been easy slipping into Kohli’s shoes, but to his credit, du Plessis never looked eager to impress. Very few international cricketers command the kind of respect du Plessis does. And his calmness is exactly the sort of leveller needed in the chaos of the IPL. It also does a brilliant job in masking the steel du Plessis lends to the side that has often relied too much on Kohli.

That has ultimately shown through. "It's just confidence, isn't it?" du Plessis said last week. "First half of the season, we were really fighting for it, didn't quite come together for us; you just need a couple of guys to find their form in the tournament, and it's happened.” But it was that last over from Dayal against CSK—conceding a first-ball six to Dhoni before dismissing him and denying them 11 runs in the next four balls to qualify—that highlighted everything RCB have done right in their bowling to resuscitate their campaign. “A lot of work has gone in behind the scenes," du Plessis has said. “I think that's for me the most obvious thing where the change has happened. I feel that behind closed doors, we are getting it right in our processes. We have been talking about what we want to achieve and what we want to get better at. And that, for me, is the shining light for the way the boys have bowled.”

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