Q. What do Punjab Kings and Carlos Brathwaite have in common?
A. 6 6 6 6
You’ve gotta hand it to Punjab. In a volatile, unpredictable competition like the IPL, they’ve somehow managed to be ultra-consistent, finishing exactly at the same position four seasons in a row.
Can they make it five in a row? We’ll see. But the early signs are promising.
They have a new coach, a new captain and a marquee player ruled out with injury. Better yet, they’ve also failed to replace Mayank Agarwal, meaning the only experienced Indian batter they have in their entire squad is a 37-year-old, who's well past his best.
Usually Punjab become unstable gradually, and fall apart as the season progresses, but this time around they’re in tatters even before a single ball has been bowled.
Everything, then, is perfectly set-up for the Kings to finish sixth again.
Which means one thing is certain: they, like Gujarat Titans, are gonna leave all experts red-faced and are gonna lift the title.
Ah, who am I kidding.
Have they plugged the gaps?
Last season, Punjab were plagued by the absence of an out-and-out bowling all-rounder at No.7. They hoped Odean Smith would turn out to be that guy but he didn’t, which meant that, in certain games, they had to field Rabada / Harpreet Brar at #7 — needless to say, it proved to be a disaster.
But at the auction they plugged this particular hole by purchasing Sam Curran, the best option available in the market, for a record fee.
In doing so, they’ve killed two birds in one stone: not only have they solved the No.7 issue, they have taken significant load off Arshdeep, who last season carried the entire death-bowling load on his shoulders, bowling 36% of all the death overs bowled by the side.
Backloading Arshdeep meant that they weren’t able to use him as an attacking new-ball option, but Curran’s entry will allow them to deploy the left-armer as a strike bowler, something that proved to be a huge success for the national side.
That being said, there are still plenty of concerns on the batting front.
Last season, Punjab were ironically let down by their batting unit which was, on paper, their stronger facet.
The batting unit’s struggle against spin — Punjab were the worst batting side against spin (average 20 and strike rate 114.9) — and individuals lacking consistency — only two batters averaged over 30 — were key reasons as to why the side endured a campaign to forget.
This time around, they have, if anything, downgraded.
For one, they’ve lost two senior batters in Mayank Agarwal (released) and Jonny Bairstow (injured) and have made no reinforcements that makes the side discernibly stronger.
But it gets worse: out of Livingstone and Rajapaksa, two batters they’ll need to come good this season, one is coming off a lengthy injury layoff and the other finds himself woefully out of form.
The sheer potential individuals in the squad possess means that you’d be silly to write Punjab’s batting off, but it’s far from ideal for a franchise to be relying on young, uncapped batters to be doing the heavy-lifting.
One thing they need to work out
Not one, Punjab need to work out several things.
Who opens with Dhawan?
Bhanuka Rajapaksa, Sikandar Raza or neither?
Kagiso Rabada, Nathan Ellis or both?
It will ultimately come down to which area Punjab would want to strengthen.
Livingstone and Curran are locks so essentially, there are five other overseas players competing for two spots.
What’s tricky for Punjab is the fact that all of Matt Short, Rajapaksa, Raza, Ellis and Rabada make a good case for selection as each of them bring a unique package to the table.
READ: Decoding Matthew Short, Punjab’s latest recruit
It will certainly be curious to see if Punjab start the season off with both Ellis and Rabada.
They did it towards the end of IPL 2022 when their season was already over, but going bowling-heavy first up, fielding three overseas seamers (Curran included) will be a clear indication that they consider bowling to be the stronger of the two facets.
Imagine saying this out loud last season.
What will win them the title?
Punjab winning IPL 2023 will be nothing short of a miracle. Mind you, this is a franchise that’s not even qualified for the playoffs in each of the last eight editions.
But you don’t write off any side in a format like T20. You just don’t.
So, what needs to happen for Punjab to win the title?
In no uncertain terms, they’ll need their batting to fire from top to bottom.
This means a 500+ run season from Dhawan, consistent impactful cameos from Prabhsimran / Short / Rajapaksa, Livingstone and Jitesh replicating what they did last season (if not doing better) and Shahrukh Khan treating the IPL like SMAT, tearing it apart.
Should this happen, Punjab might just end up going all the way, considering they have a solid, reliable bowling line-up which, even if it’s not intimidating on paper, is very much capable of complimenting the batting the way England's bowlers did in the T20 World Cup last year.
Home and away
Punjab don’t have outright home advantage like CSK do, but overall, they should thrive at home regardless of whether Mohali / Dharamshala turns out to be pace friendly or a batting paradise. Should it be the latter, they possess batters that are capable of making the most of the conditions.
In case of the former, they have the option of using someone like a Vidhwath Kaverappa as an impact sub, as a fourth seaming option to add more juice to their seam attack.
Spin-friendly conditions away from home could prove to be the kryptonite of their batters, but on the bowling front, they’re well-equipped to thrive in slow conditions thanks to the presence of Rahul Chahar, Harpreet Brar and overseas all-rounders capable of rolling their arm over (Livingstone / Short / Raza).
Punjab Kings will be without the services of Kagiso Rabada for their first match of the season against KKR. Expect Nathan Ellis to start in his absence. Reports have emerged claiming Liam Livingstone, too, could miss the first encounter but they remain unconfirmed.