“Are you sure about this decision, Kieron?”
It was a question that would most likely have gone through the minds of every Mumbai Indians fan simultaneously as Pollard introduced Krunal Pandya into the attack right after the strategic time-out.
At 35/4 after 9 overs, MI had CSK on the ropes. Overs 7, 8 and 9 had combinedly cost 11 runs, and all the Mumbai bowlers needed to do was maintain their discipline. What the MI fans were not sure of was if the senior Pandya was the right man to inflict the choke-job.
And sure enough, in no time, their worst fears came true. By the end of the second over of his spell, Krunal had conceded 27. Ruturaj Gaikwad, who was not too long ago struggling to put bat to ball, found his groove, and CSK, for the first time in the game, were off and running.
Krunal never bowled again in the game but in 12 balls, the damage was done. In the end, as it turned out, it was irreparable.
It was a 10-minute period that encapsulated the struggles of the all-rounder, who is currently in the midst of an identity crisis. And as he, 90 minutes later, was tamely run-out after walking in to bat at No.7, it begged the question: what really is Krunal Pandya’s role in this Mumbai side?
Someone who shot to fame in 2016, Krunal, in his first four seasons with the franchise, was their ‘Mr Reliable’. Rohit Sharma could always bank on him to tidy things up with the ball, and he provided both solidity and firepower in the lower-order with the bat. Bowling, nevertheless, remained his primary skill.
But things, of late, have been different. Krunal, since the start of the last season, has seen his ability with the ball dwindle to the extent that he no longer is even remotely a wicket-taking threat.
Since the start of IPL 2020, Krunal has taken 9 wickets at an average of 59.4. Among all bowlers who have sent down 50 or more overs during this timeframe, no one has a worse average. Sunil Narine is the only other bowler to have not touched double digits in terms of wickets.
This is in complete contrast to how he fared in the 2017, 2018 and 2019 editions where he combinedly picked 34 wickets at an average of 26.2.
But the concern is not just that the wickets have dried up. Since the start of last season, the left-arm spinner’s economy rate has been on a steady rise too.
Across his first four IPL seasons, Krunal boasted an ER of 7.2, conceding over 7.50 runs an over in a season just once. Since the start of last season, this number has jumped to 7.7. This season, the 30-year-old boasts an ER of 8.15 despite Mumbai playing five of their first eight matches in spin-friendly Chennai conditions.
In fact, there is an even more telling statistic. Across his first four IPL seasons, Krunal had an ER of 8.5 or more in only 18 of the 55 innings he bowled (32.72%). Since the start of last season, he has returned an ER of 8.5 or more in 12 of the 23 innings he’s bowled in, which is roughly 52%.
It gets worse, though.
Up until last season, the left-arm spinner was at least seen as someone who could give the skipper four overs on any given day, in any conditions. IPL 2020 was a season to forget with the ball for the 30-year-old, still he completed his quota of 4 overs in half the matches he featured in.
Rohit’s faith in Krunal has taken a nosedive in IPL 2021.
So far this season, Krunal has completed his quota of 4 overs in just 2 matches. Across the last three matches, the left-arm spinner has bowled just 3 overs, and he has not completed his quota of 4 overs in each of MI’s last six matches. This despite 50% of those six games being played at Chepauk.
All this essentially means that it’s Krunal’s package that continues to entice the MI management. They no longer see him as a reliable left-arm spinner who can chip in with the bat, but as a proper all-rounder who is capable of winning matches even with the bat in hand.
The problem, though, is that the numbers don’t justify Mumbai’s obsession with Krunal’s batting ability either.
Across the last three IPL seasons, Krunal has batted 35 times. Among batsmen who have played 25 or more innings in this timeframe, the southpaw is the only player to average less than 20. This season, he is currently averaging 14.85, his lowest ever tally in an IPL season.
Fine, for a batsman like Krunal who comes in to bat late - or is sent up the order to utilize match-ups - it is perhaps harsh to quantify ability using ‘average’ as the primary metric. Considering he is also a finisher, strike rate would be a much more accurate metric to assess performance.
As it turns out, however, his scoring rate hasn’t been much impressive, either. Since the start of IPL 2019, Krunal has struck at 122.6. Only four batters - Iyer, Smith, Gill and Rayudu - have struck at a lower rate, yet each of them have made up for the low SR through runs, averaging over 29. Krunal has the SR of an anchor despite being a finisher.
The walls are closing in on Krunal Pandya
Make no mistake, Krunal Pandya is a cricketer any limited-overs side in the world would love to have. The devastating fifty against England on ODI debut, and the parsimonious showing against Sri Lanka in July (he ended the ODIs with an ER of 3.50) both served as reminders of just how good he could be.
But there is only so long you could back a player on potential. Particularly in an unrelenting, unforgiving competition like the IPL.
Krunal has, over the years, played an integral role in turning Mumbai into the powerhouses they are today but even the most ardent supporter of his would admit that he is skating on thin ice.
Could Mumbai really afford to have an all-rounder who won’t guarantee the side runs and overs? Is Krunal really thaaaat indispensable? Would it not be worth giving someone like an Anukul Roy, who provides the same package and had a breakthrough domestic season six months ago, a run of few matches?
These are all questions for Mahela Jayawardene to ponder. For the first two questions at least, his answer, thus far, has been a stubborn ‘yes’.
But the time has come for the MI head coach to re-think his stance. It has been long-ignored, but Krunal Pandya’s form is now a problem that needs addressing.