Chitrabhanu Kadalayil shares his thoughts as we approach the halfway stage of this year's Indian Premier League,
IPL 2018 talking points: Ashwin leads by example, Samson and Pant put their hands up to replace Dhoni behind the stumps for India
Aye aye, Ashwin!
During an interview with The Hindu newspaper last year, Ravichandran Ashwin was asked to comment on the fact he had not been given an official leadership position in the Indian cricket team. To this he responded in typically Ashwin-esque style: “I lead without a title."
The off-spinner was not being facetious when he said it, adding: “I end up playing a crucial part in most matches which India wins. I am at peace with myself.”
On viewing some of the footage from India’s Test victories in 2016, you will find it was Ashwin who set the agenda on the field in many instances, even as his captain – the usually vociferous Virat Kohli – simply followed his instructions.
That Ashwin is a thinker and an innovator, who has immense faith in his abilities and has earned the respect of his teammates and peers, has never been in question.
But after his appointment as Kings XI Punjab captain ahead of this season’s Indian Premier League (IPL) competition, it was left to be seen whether he could lead a team into battle.
Nearly halfway through the round-robin stage of the tournament, it is evident he has done just that. His quick thinking, occasional gamesmanship and expressive leadership on the field have been crucial to Punjab’s rise to the top of the IPL table.
Sample his open challenge to Sunrisers Hyderabad last Thursday after he won the toss and opted to bat first, and you get an idea of the state of Ashwin’s mind. “I would like to see them chase down a score,” he said.
Hyderabad did rise to the task but eventually came up short, presumably to Ashwin's delight.
In another run chase four days later, Delhi Daredevils found themselves outwitted by Ashwin’s tactics, one of which was to constantly rotate his bowlers. But it was his surprising decision to bowl Afghanistan’s 17-year-old mystery spinner Mujeeb Ur Rahman in the final over that clinched the game for Punjab.
A leader may only be as good as his team, and Ashwin has benefited from the runs Lokesh Rahul and a rejuvenated Chris Gayle have accumulated at the top of the order. But in close encounters such as the game against Delhi, his ability to rally the troops, as well his tactical nous, have made the difference.
Given every IPL team finds its campaign going through ebbs and flows, it is difficult to predict how well Punjab will end up doing.
But enough to say that 14 months after his interview appeared in The Hindu, Ashwin has proved he is capable of leading from the front. This time, with a title to boot.
With MS Dhoni in the twilight of his career, it looks like India's selectors will have more than a few options to replace him in the national Twenty20 side. Dinesh Karthik has been excellent as wicketkeeper, batsman and captain at Kolkata Knight Riders. His leadership during the game against Rajasthan Royals last week was especially noteworthy for some out-of-the-box thinking, such as starting with spinners at both ends. He has been hitting the ball well, too, scoring runs at crucial stages and finishing off games like Dhoni used to in his pomp.
But in the unlikely event the selectors look beyond Karthik, who is already 32, there are three players to choose from: Rajasthan's Sanju Samson, 23, Rishabh Pant, 20, of the Delhi Daredevils, and 19-year-old Mumbai Indian Ishan Kishan. All three players have shone in IPL 2018, particularly Kishan, whose consistency at the top of Mumbai's batting order indicates maturity.
Mark Markande out for more
Leg-spin is back, no question. The National's Paul Radley had only recently put together a list of the most promising leggies in action at the World Cup Qualifier held in Zimbabwe last month. Two of them - Afghanistan's Rashid Khan and Nepal's Sandeep Lamichhane - are also involved in the IPL this season, with the former performing a key role in Sunrisers Hyderabad's promising campaign. But IPL 2018 could yet be remembered for the emergence of another little-known wrist spinner: Mayank Markande. The 20-year-old Mumbai Indians bowler has taken 10 wickets from six games, having dismissed the likes of MS Dhoni, the Chennai Super Kings captain, as well as Hyderabad batsmen Shikhar Dhawan, Manish Pandey and Shakib Al Hasan. He has not been able to turn his individual exploits into team successes yet, as Mumbai continue to flounder this season, but Markande's maturity and consistency could well earn him a spot in the Indian team in the long run.
Bunglers from Bangalore
It is understandable if players and fans associated with Royal Challengers Bangalore are watching, one can only assume with envy, as Chris Gayle and Lokesh Rahul bat Kings XI Punjab to the top of the table. Not so long ago, they were both important cogs in Bangalore's wheel, particularly Gayle. The management must have thought they got like-for-like replacements in Quinton de Kock and Brendon McCullum, but neither has really fired. So once again the burden of scoring runs lies heavily on Virat Kohli and AB de Villiers, even if the latter denies - as he did this week - that theirs is a two-man team.
Bangalore may yet recover from their slow start (two wins from five games) but their bowling department remains a worry. Umesh Yadav has been superb, but fellow seamer Everton Woakes has underwhelmed. Spinner Yuzvendra Chahal has been up and down, too. At some point, the powers that be will learn that unless they invest more time, money and effort in adding depth to the bowling attack, Bangalore may go another season without winning the elusive IPL title.