As we’ve already come to understand in the first two games of this season, Sunrisers’ auction strategy has turned out to be a grave misstep.
Aside from the entire team looking dependent as ever on their talismans Warner and Bairstow, both their middle-order and their pace unit look the weakest in the entire competition and they also, by some distance, look the most imbalanced team in the tournament. As things stand, they look primed to snatch the wooden spoon from Royal Challengers Bangalore.
Sunrisers’ inherent lack of quality in their reserves - in contrast to, say, a KKR - many believe, might have already sealed the fate of the franchise this season, but there might just yet be light at the end of the tunnel. To give themselves the best opportunity to see that, though, the club might have to do the unthinkable; Sunrisers might very well have to take the boldest, bravest, and most controversial decision in the club’s history, which is to drop Rashid Khan.
It goes unsaid that Rashid is world-class, irreplaceable and, as of this very moment, among the Top 3 bowlers in the IPL - his numbers since his debut in 2017 serve as a testament to the same. But as mental, preposterous, nonsensical, and outrageous as the suggestion sounds, dropping Rashid has a lot of logic to it. The move might not guarantee success - it might very well backfire - but it will be the Sunrisers’ best bet to rediscover their lost balance.
There have been two unequivocal takeaways from the first two matches of SRH thus far - that their pace battery is the worst in the entire league and, as was the case last season, there isn’t simply enough experience or firepower in their middle-order to take the team over the line in tight matches. In particular, the lack of potency in the pace department, on lively UAE wickets, has left the team handicapped - Bhuvi seems rusty and out-of-form; Natarajan and Sandeep are well out of their depth at this level and Khaleel is too erratic to ever be a commodity who can be relied on.
The first XI is crying for the introduction of a Jason Holder, but the existing team composition - Warner, Bairstow, Nabi, and Rashid eating up the four overseas slots - shuts down the possibility of even entertaining the idea of including an overseas pacer, due to the incumbents being ‘undroppable’.
However, as undroppable and strong as it looks on paper, a four-player combination of Warner, Bairstow, Nabi, and Rashid is simply not practical or viable in this SRH side owing to the glaring absence of world-class, quality Indian cricketers in the remaining seven slots. The paper-thin lower-middle-order does not bode well with the loaded top-order and the inefficacious pace-attack fails to complement the masterful spin twins; this has been well-documented over the side’s past 15 or so games where the obtrusive imbalance has seen the team plummet to embarrassing defeats.
Which leaves the team with only one feasible option to restore balance in the side - the dreaded, uncomfortable one of replacing one of their four incumbent overseas players. Given Warner and Bairstow are pretty much untouchable - not just due to their mind-boggling numbers, but also due to there being no able replacements - it inevitably comes down to a toss-up between Nabi and Rashid. But while the easy and obvious option would be to get rid of the former, Sunrisers would be, in fact, better off dropping Rashid.
Rashid, hands down, trumps Nabi when it comes to sheer skill and match-winning ability, but while the leg-spinner is clearly the better player (or bowler, at least), the versatility of Nabi makes him a better fit for this Sunrisers side. A middle-order of Manish Pandey, Vijay Shankar and Priyam Garg, three batsmen largely incapable of shifting to fifth gear at will, screams for an experienced, specialist finisher and in Nabi, SRH have just that. Sure, Rashid might have played the odd world-class cameo every now and then, but it is a fact that his batting is light-years behind that of his compatriot.
There are also two other factors that work in Nabi’s favour, the first of which is that he is a better bowler than Rashid is a batsman. In his relatively short IPL career, the off-spinner has maintained an economy rate of 6.54 - which is, in fact, marginally better than Rashid’s 6.57 - he can, like Rashid, bowl both in the powerplay and at the death and he has, of late, evident from his incredulous performance in the CPL where he in fact outperformed Rashid, taken his bowling to the next level.
The second, and perhaps the most important one, is that even should they drop Rashid, the Sunrisers can still turn to the experienced Shahbaz Nadeem, who they roped in last season as a part of the blasphemous Shikhar Dhawan trade deal. Nadeem, who turns the ball away from the right-hander like Rashid, is a veteran of 64 IPL games and, should he be trusted, could do a more-than-decent job as a second-spinner, if not as a spearhead. On the all-rounder’s front, unfortunately, SRH have no such luxury, no like-for-like replacement for Nabi who they can turn to; not anyone with experience, at least.
It’s the package that Nabi brings - which helps fill a gaping hole in the side in the form of the lower-middle order - that makes him an invaluable entity. By keeping him in the side and by drafting in Jason Holder for Rashid, SRH will not only add more teeth to their pace battery but will also significantly strengthen their lower-middle order. Holder, over the last 12 months or so, has also transformed into a power-hitting all-rounder. Aside from taking 10 wickets in CPL 2020 at an ER of 6.63, he also struck his 192 runs at a rate of 140.14, including a 42-ball 69 versus a Jamaica side that comprised Mujeeb, Lamichhane, and Oshane Thomas.
Why a Holder-Nabi swap won’t work is due to the simple fact that in this case, the team would either be forced to play an extra batsman to make up for the inability of Rashid with the bat or would otherwise head into matches with an extremely thin batting line-up; in the case of them playing both Holder and Nabi, they can stack their middle-order with the three incumbent accumulators, Shankar, Pandey, and Garg, knowing very well that they have two power-hitters to follow. The latter combination would give significantly more freedom for the middle-order batsmen, something they’ve not had since the start of last season.
It is, of course, no fault of Rashid Khan that he’ll have to be left out of the side. His IPL numbers - 56 wickets in 48 games at an ER of 6.57 - prove that he’s elite, but dropping him - in order to adjust the balance of a clumsily imbalanced side - is a consequence of the management’s goof-up in the auction, particularly prior to the 2019 season. Replacing Dhawan with Bairstow meant sacrificing an overseas slot, which in turn has stripped them of the luxury of playing an extra middle-order batsman - like an Henriques or a Cutting who they employed 3-4 years ago - or an overseas seamer like Mustafizur or even Stanlake, who they deployed as recently as the 2018 season. The inability to add world-class Indian players to the setup has also considerably hindered both the quality and the balance of the side.
The harsh reality for Sunrisers is that, at this moment in time, Rashid Khan is a luxury they simply cannot afford. Perhaps come the 2021 Mega Auction they can retain him and build a side around him, but aiming to do the same right now having not covered other bases is detrimental to the side - both in the short and long run. It will take some massive cojones, but dropping Rashid might be a necessary sacrifice that will have to be made for the greater good of the side. After all, if Sunrisers can leave out Kane Williamson the very next season after he led them to the final and won the orange cap, there is no reason why they cannot do the same with Rashid for ‘tactical reasons’.