By the end of the IPL 2021 campaign, Devdutt Padikkal had two 400-run IPL seasons under his belt, an IPL century to his name and a batting average that read 31.57.
The best part of it all? He was still just 21.
So as Padikkal enrolled himself into the mega auction list last year, after not being retained by Royal Challengers Bangalore, the possibilities were endless.
A move to Mumbai Indians looked realistic, given the five-time champs were looking for an LHB partner for Rohit Sharma.
Being snapped up by one of the two new franchises, too, seemed like a high possibility. Even being bought back by RCB seemed viable.
After all, who wouldn't want a proven young left-handed, Indian-run bank?
At the auction table, it was Rajasthan Royals who won the race for Padikkal, out-bidding MI, CSK and RCB as they sealed the services of the youngster for INR 7.75 crore.
A year on, Rajasthan have turned their fortunes around, but Padikkal finds himself being a square peg in a round hole. A misfit, if there ever was one.
There are always marriages and relationships you tend to be apprehensive about when they start — the RR-Padikkal linkup was one such.
Having retained two openers in Jos Buttler and Yashasvi Jaiswal, RR did not need a third in Padikkal.
But they went ahead and got him anyway, that too for an eye-watering 7.75 crore, his purchase meant one of two things: either they were going to break the Buttler-Jasiwal stand, or force-fit Padikkal in the middle-order in a hope that he’ll adjust seamlessly.
Manoj Badale, the franchise’s lead owner, clarified hours after the purchase that it was the latter.
21 games in, the ‘adjustment’ has not happened and Padikkal finds himself in no man’s land.
Padikkal has now played 14 games for the franchise at No.3 or below and has amassed just 332 runs at an average of 23.71 and a strike rate of 119.4. He is yet to post a fifty as a non-opener and has scored at a strike rate under 130 in 64% of the knocks batting in the middle overs (9/14).
To say that he’s struggled to make the transition is a gross understatement.
In cases like this, far too often the arguments are black and white. It is either ‘lol, the franchise screwed up’ or ‘Hah, the player sucks’.
However, two things can be true at once. Certainly, it is the case here: RR made a questionable tactical decision and, at the same time, Padikkal’s output has been shocking.
Let us dissect RR’s decision to zero in on Padikkal as a middle-order batter because, well, it is a curious one, to say the least.
At RCB, Padikkal was a model of consistency — back-to-back 400-run seasons serve as a testament to the same — but he often landed in hot water for slowing down post the powerplay.
The numbers don’t lie. Across the 2020 and 2021 IPL seasons, the youngster struck at close to 130 in the powerplay but his SR dropped to 119.39 in the 7-15 phase. Never once did he explode at the death, and his SR of 134.48 in the 16-20 period is evidence of the same.
Considering this — and the sample size was large, 29 games in total — it was bizarre that RR thought that an opener that evidently slowed down post the powerplay would be a good fit for a middle-order role.
Maybe they were impressed by his ability to turn over strike? Unlikely.
Padikkal, during his time at RCB, had the bad habit of playing far too many dots. He was, in fact, one of the worst openers at rotating strike, his dot percentage of 38.10% ranking 10th among 12 openers who scored 500 or more runs across IPL 2020 and IPL 2021.
You always want your middle-order batters to at least be proactive, if not explosive. Dots in the 7-15 phase are always a big no-no.
Which begs the question: what were RR thinking by deploying an opener with a very high dot percentage in the middle-order?
No surprises then that since last season Padikkal has the second-worst dot-ball percentage among middle-order batters (No.3 to No.6) who have scored a minimum of 300 runs.
Alongside him are the likes of Nitish Rana, Sanju Samson and Jitesh Sharma but there’s a massive difference: the strike rate.
Lastly, Badale said post the mega auction that RR saw Padikkal as a middle-order option because of his proficiency against spin but at RCB, he was merely okayish against the spinners.
Across the 2020 and 2021 IPL editions, Padikkal struck at 121.74 versus the spinners. Middling numbers.
This figure rose to 128.21 in the 7-15 phase but then again, it’s not a groundbreaking figure. Certainly not eye-popping enough to be forcing a franchise to deploy him as a ‘spin-hitter’.
So, to summarize: RR bought an anchor opener who played lots of dots, slowed down significantly post the powerplay and was okayish against spin for INR 7.75 crore, and force-fit him in the middle-order.
How did they expect him to succeed?
On the flip side, the best players succeed when they are thrown in at the deep end.
Take the example of Rahul Tripathi. He’s a natural opener but after being slotted in everywhere from 1 to 8 for KKR, he made the No.3 spot his own through consistent showings, though it wasn’t his preferred position. It probably still isn’t, but that’s modern-day cricket; you need to be adaptable.
At RR, there’s been no paucity of opportunities for Padikkal but he hasn’t been able to adjust accordingly to the needs of the team.
On Sunday, not for the first time RR won in spite of him and not because of him. A 25-ball 26 in a chase of 180 nearly proved to be fatal before Samson and Hetmyer both played their respective best knocks of IPL 2023 — against the best bowling attack in the competition — to take the side over the line.
He showed glimpses in the previous match against Chennai but it was only a game prior to the CSK clash that he single-handedly cost RR the PBKS clash with a painfully slow 26-ball 21 on a batting paradise in Guwahati.
In that game, RR fell short by five runs and it won’t be a stretch to claim that Padikkal’s knock cost the Royals two points: the other batters scored 161 (94) while he crawled to 21 (26).
The concern is that the brisk CSK-esque knocks have been rare occurrences, sandwiched between knocks like the GT / PBKS ones.
Indeed, this is a young opener that’s been played out of position, but the returns have been abysmal considering how strongly the franchise have backed him. This isn’t even a Sarfaraz Khan case where the batter has been shuffled up and down the order: last season, Padikkal got a run of seven consecutive matches at No.4.
Not only that but at one point last season, RR dropped Jaiswal to give Padikkal his preferred opening slot.
However, he couldn’t capitalize, with him averaging 18.71 across the seven games in which he opened.
The botched run at the top of the order for RR — though it came after a string of games in the middle order — kind of invalidates the argument that the ‘sole’ reason for Padikkal’s underwhelming returns have been his entry points/batting position.
There are deeper, underlying issues, such as his alarming returns against pace bowling.
Among batters who have faced 200 or more balls versus pace since IPL 2022, no one has a lower average than Padikkal’s 20.85.
We are at the risk of going into a rabbit hole but you get the gist.
With Jaiswal making the opening slot his own, the only way Padikkal makes it at RR is if he turns a corner, batting in the middle-order, out of nowhere.
Funnier things have happened in the past, but a lot will have to change, drastically, if this resurgence is to take place.
Time is running out for Padikkal and RR to make this marriage work.