Bereft of lifelines, Punjab have to overcome a team they fancy

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02 Oct 2021 | 02:28 PM
authorSomesh Agarwal

Bereft of lifelines, Punjab have to overcome a team they fancy

KL Rahul gets a lot of flak for his batting strike rate in IPL but not when he faces his former side

Punjab Kings are unpredictably predictable. Predictability lies in them making personnel changes in almost every game. Almost every time, it is to cover a gap they identified in the last game. Unpredictability is in the players they bring in or leave out. Predictability lies in them making a meal of easier run chases. Unpredictability lies in the position from where they make things interesting.

But all this while, there has been something that has been predictably predictable. That has been KL Rahul. On being in the running for the Orange Cap winners. And on being criticized after each game for his absolute callousness for batting strike rate. While Rahul has taken up the mantle of anchoring the innings even when the equation doesn’t demand it since IPL 2020, there has been one fixture that has made him take this makeshift mask off and reveals his natural flair.

Over the years, Royal Challengers Bangalore have been addicted to releasing players after every season. No other released player has come back to haunt them back as much as Rahul. In the three innings in the last two seasons, not only has Rahul scored two fifties and a hundred against them at a strike rate of 162.3 – in comparison to his overall strike rate of 129.9 since – none of the Bangalore bowlers has managed to dismiss him even once.

In IPL since 2020, there have been 37 batters who have scored more than 100 runs against spinners. No one has done so with a strike rate lower than Rahul’s 103.8. His ultra-defensive approach has been against all spin bowling types. With Yuzvendra Chahal, Glenn Maxwell and Shahbaz Ahmed as options, Bangalore have all bases covered. But as if to prove a point, Rahul manages to find a way against his former IPL side.

Then there is the issue of the venue for this encounter being Sharjah. The highest score in the last four games here has been 139. Rahul’s cautious approach might even work in Punjab’s favour on the day.

Now, let us turn the clock back to when this season was still in India. When other teams struggled to figure out how to play in Chennai, RCB ran ahead of the pack by winning all their three games there. This was because in Glenn Maxwell and AB de Villiers they have two special players who with more shots in their armoury than an average Joe, manage to make the difference. As pitches turn tricky in UAE, these two can stand apart again. Maxwell is back in form after initial misfires while de Villiers has not had much to do so far. From RCB’s perspective, the lesser they need him, the more they will evolve as a team.

Shouldering some of the responsibility in the top order has been KS Bharat. Batting at three as a pit stop between the Indian openers and the overseas dashers, Bharat has managed to improve his score in each game.

On the bowling front, apart from the three spinners, there are Harshal Patel and Dan Christian whose variations have been a handful on the helpful wickets. While Harshal has been in focus by continuing to be the collapse inducer, Chahal has turned his season around since landing in the Middle East.

On the other hand are Punjab who still have a lot of gaps. At least in the batting and all-rounder department. And that is why they often rely on a Rahul special. But, this is just the make-up of their squad and something that they cannot address no matter how much they tinker.  Add to it Chris Gayle leaving the bubble and Nicholas Pooran not understanding his role (like Glenn Maxwell last year), the problems start forming a heap. Mayank Agarwal tries hard at the top but often falls prey to making up for Rahul’s caution.

In the all-round department, they have Moises Henriques who does not fit into the lower-middle role they need him at. Fabian Allen is the only other option but he makes Harpreet Brar – who was the destroyer in chief when these two sides played last – redundant.

While Rahul and the international stars in Punjab hog the limelight, they have bright spots elsewhere. Shahrukh Khan played his first game of the UAE leg against Kolkata in Punjab’s last game. With a nine-ball 22*, he helped his side cross the line for once. But, it does raise questions on where was he all this while.

More consistently impactful players have been the two youngsters. Like Shahrukh, Ravi Bishnoi was not the first choice in the XI when IPL resumed. In the last three games, he has not only allowed batsmen to not score runs off him but has also outfoxed them to pick seven wickets. In fact with an economy of 6.1, he has been among the most economical spinners in the season.

Then there is Arshdeep Singh, who has sort of being their unsung hero for a while. He has taken wickets every 12.9 balls this season, the bet among pacers who bowl across all phases.

One might assume that the path to Bangalore’s success against Punjab is through Rahul’s early dismissal. But the fight will not be over until they find a way to neutralize Arshdeep, Bishnoi and of course Harpreet Brar, who Rahul insisted was a tough leave the other day.

On the qualification front, RCB are already at 14 points which is now the threshold for qualification this season. They need to keep winning to have a chance to finish in the top two. Punjab’s objectives are simpler. They need to win their last two games to finish with 14 points. Even then, it is difficult to predict whether they will be able to make it.

Probable XIs

Royal Challengers Bangalore: Virat Kohli (c), Devdutt Padikkal, KS Bharat (wk), Glenn Maxwell, AB de Villiers, Shahbaz Ahmed, Dan Christian, Kyle Jamieson/George Garton, Harshal Patel, Mohammed Siraj, Yuzvendra Chahal

Punjab Kings: KL Rahul (c&wk), Mayank Agarwal, Nicholas Pooran, Aiden Markram, Shahrukh Khan, Harpreet Brar/Deepak Hooda, Fabian Allen/Chris Jordan, Nathan Ellis, Mohammed Shami, Ravi Bishnoi, Arshdeep Singh

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Royal Challengers Bangalore vs Punjab KingsIndian Premier League, 2021Royal Challengers BangalorePunjab KingsVirat KohliKL RahulArshdeep SinghRavi BishnoiHarpreet Brar

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