When someone asks you to describe Punjab, tell them the following: they are the only franchise in the history of T20 cricket to have taken the, ‘Hey, can I copy your homework’ meme seriously.
Now copying can help you if you choose the right person, but quite astonishingly Punjab have gone after the only two sides apart from them to have never won the IPL title, Royal Challengers Bangalore and Delhi Capitals.
Firstly, they are as much Bangalore-lite as they are Punjab-pro; the Punjab of 2021 is different from the Bangalore of the mid-2010 the same way Clark Kent differs from Superman. Heck, this time around, they’ve even copied the jersey. Secondly, they’ve taken not one but two leaves out of Delhi’s book. They’ve appointed the skipper from the infamous 2008 Border-Gavaskar Trophy as their head coach and now they have renamed their franchise in the hope of turning their fortunes around. You’d think that Punjab Kings would have, by now, landed at least one IPL title had their owners put as much thought into strategy and team assembling as they do in astrology.
What was the story last season?
It was 2018 and 2019 in reverse. After looking certain to walk away with the wooden spoon, the injection of Chris Gayle propelled them to win five straight matches but well, as they say, old habits die hard. With a qualification in sight, they choked against the worst two sides in the competition, Rajasthan Royals and Chennai Super Kings, in their final two games to finish 6th and not make the playoffs for a sixth straight year.
How do they line-up this time around?
How can you finish seventh despite having the orange cap holder, the best opening partnership in the league and, statistically, the two most devastating middle-order batsmen in the entire competition? No idea. Call it #JustPunjabThings.
The Powerplay | An embodiment of solidity
‘Solid’ is what describes how Punjab went about their business in the first six overs last season. They had the third-best SR (128.57) and the third-best avg score (46.2852) of all teams and they lost just one wicket per game in this phase, on average, a tally that was only bettered by SRH. This was enabled by the dynamic duo of KL Rahul and Mayank Agarwal, who were simply the best opening partnership in the entire league. While Mayank played aggressor, striking at 134.6, Rahul was more conservative (SR 124.6) and simply refused to give his wicket away, getting dismissed just 2/14 times in this phase. At times, Chris Gayle, who struck at 160.0 in the first six overs last season, galvanized the batting too.
What can they do better this season?
Not too much, but KL Rahul should certainly look to take more chances - only in 6 of the 14 games last season did the Punjab skipper maintain an SR over 125.00 in the first six overs. There was, of course, the logic behind why he did what he did, as Punjab’s middle-order was brittle and unreliable, but with Gayle available from the first game this season, and with Dawid Malan and Moises Henriques walking into the setup, Rahul will only be limiting the potential of the side by clinging on to the ‘play responsible’ mantra. Whether Punjab will have the luxury to draft in Malan remains to be seen, but the solidity and security the Englishman brings - he averages 76.5 in the powerplay in his last 12 T20Is - might just be the key to unshackling Rahul. And yes, just to give a peek into Rahul’s superhuman ceiling, in IPL 2018, in the powerplay, he averaged 91.0 and struck at 157.6.
Middle-overs | Crash, Bang, Wallop!
Punjab were, simply put, the best side in the middle overs last season. Yep, even better than Mumbai. In overs 7-14 last season, they had the best SR of all 8 teams (130.8), they hit more boundaries than any other side (6.71) and they also accumulated the most runs per match (62.78). Not just this, only three teams lost fewer wickets than them (1.71) in this phase. This was largely due to the fact that they possessed the two batsmen with the highest SR in the middle-overs - Mayank Agarwal (176.2) and Pooran (173.02) - and had Rahul (avg 43.6 and SR 115.3) and Gayle (avg 46.0 and SR 122.1) anchor the innings.
Is there scope to better their 2020 showing?
Remarkably, yes. Punjab, this season, have dumped their bigger under-performer from last season, Glenn Maxwell, who was quite appalling in the middle overs: he averaged 13.8 and struck just 55 off the 65 balls he faced (SR 84.6). Regardless of where he batted, 4 or 5, Maxwell turned out to be a burden to the side, but his jettisoning could potentially open the door for Moises Henriques. In 11 non-international T20s since the start of 2020, Henriques has been a master in the middle-overs, having averaged 27.4 avg and struck a mind-bogglingly good 168.0. He will not only provide an extra counter-attacking option but also will, unlike Maxwell, add insurance to the batting. Punjab, otherwise, can also always still fall back to state-skipper Mandeep Singh, who did a fine job in overs 7-14 in the limited opportunities he got last year: Mandeep averaged 32.5 and struck at 122.6 (65 off 53 balls in total) in the middle, showcasing his versatility. Punjab have all the ammo necessary to once again be the best side in the middle-overs for a second year running.
Death overs | Under-performers last season; Have the ammo to succeed this season
For a team that took pride in its firepower, Punjab’s showing at the death last season was embarrassing. Their SR of 151.27 was the second-worst amongst all sides and only one side hit fewer boundaries (6.42) than they did last season. What makes these statistics all the worse is the fact that only two sides lost fewer wickets per game than them (2.43) in this phase. The prime culprit was Glenn Maxwell, who not only failed to hit a single six all season, but also maintained an SR of just 130.8. Apart from the Victorian, skipper KL Rahul too, minus the RCB game, was appalling at the death. Barring the encounter versus the Royal Challengers where he smoked 69 off 25 at the death, Rahul struck at just 131.6 in overs 15-20 in the rest of the season. 6 of his 8 sixes came in the RCB encounter, outside which he hit just two sixes at the death all season.
Will the death overs continue to be a problem this season?
Punjab invested smartly in the auction and did everything they could to correct the wrongs. They dumped Maxwell, who struggled to hit the ball beyond the square but most importantly brought in an array of options. The Punjab Kings now have at their disposal Tamil Nadu’s Shahrukh Khan, who for two seasons now has been the most devastating force in domestic cricket. In SMAT 2020/21, Shahrukh struck at an astounding 257.6 at the death, pummeling 67 off the 26 balls he faced. They also have roped in Fabian Allen, who in 11 T20Is since 2019 has hit 16 sixes and struck at 213.3 at the death, and recently hit 21 off 6 balls to propel Windies to victory versus the Lankans, and have Deepak Hooda, who struck at 157.1 in overs 15-20 last season. Pooran, last season, carried Punjab at the death, scoring 117 off 68, striking at 172.1, but this season, he will have good company. That said, it goes without saying that skipper Rahul, should he survive the first 14 overs, should up the ante in the final six; an anchor who eats up balls and gets out without providing the final flourish is detrimental to the side. Ideally, they should do better than last season but it's Punjab.
Punjab Kings have historically always been a very good batting side on paper, but, like we saw last season, they always find a way to sabotage their campaign. They are, undoubtedly, stronger than they were last season but, ultimately, how they fare will depend on how well they manage to execute their plans. Their fans, though, can afford to be optimistic.
“Show a man a YouTube compilation of the ‘Worst bowling performances in IPL history and he’ll laugh for a day; hook him up to Punjab Kings matches and he’ll laugh for the rest of his life.” - Source unknown.
Powerplay | Two-men show in 2020; might be the same in 2021
Over these next few paragraphs, we will learn why taking wickets in T20 cricket at the powerplay and the death is of no use until and unless you manage to keep the runs down. Only three teams took more wickets than Punjab’s 1.43 in the powerplay last season, yet they had the second-worst economy in the league (8.31). A part of the reason was that it was a bowling line-up of two halves: while Shami (7 wickets at ER 7.52) and Cottrell (4 wickets at ER 7.71) were outstanding, the rest of the pack were hideous. Ravi Bishnoi (0 wickets at ER 9.50), Chris Jordan (1 wicket at ER 10.80), Maxwell (1 wicket at ER 8.80) and Neesham (1 wicket at ER 9.25) were all hideous, leaking runs at an unacceptable rate. When Punjab bowled, you just knew that boundaries were going to galore.
Can we expect a more disciplined display this time around?
With Punjab, you never know, but the work they did in the market suggests that, should they utilize their resources effectively, they should fare much better up-front this time around. Jhye Richardson has been a king in powerplay overs in T20 cricket since 2020, as in his last 27 games he’s maintained an ER of 6.17, while also nipping out 14 wickets. He could not only replicate Cottrell but even potentially overshadow Shami; together, the duo could terrorize opponents by wounding them with the new ball. The third bowler let Punjab down in the powerplay but the arrival of Meredith could very well solve it - across his last 14 non-international T20s, the Hobart tearaway has maintained an ER of 7.62, while also taking 8 wickets. Fabian Allen - who has maintained an ER of 5.22 in the first six overs in all T20s since 2020 - could also be an out-of-the-box option, but given Punjab were hesitant in using Mujeeb last season, it is fair to assume that they would be willing to put all their eggs in the pace basket, which has been improved since the turn of the year.
Middle-overs | Yay for dots; nay for wickets
If curtailing runs was Punjab’s problem in the powerplay last season, in the middle overs they simply found it impossible to take wickets. Of all teams, no one had a lower wickets-per-game ratio than Punjab (1.42) in overs 7-14 last season. Their economy of 7.46, rendered possible by their spinners, was the fourth-best in this phase, yes, but all it did was allow their opponents to conserve wickets and go crash bang wallop in the final phase of the game. Their seamers - Jordan, Arshdeep, Neesham and Shami - contributed to a total of just 4 wickets in this phase while their lead spinner, Ravi Bishnoi, had an SR of 27.4 in the middle-overs, striking less than once per game. Punjab not only lacked imagination in the middle-overs but also the aggression to run through teams.
Will they endure a similar fate this season?
Unfortunately, there is every chance that Punjab could, once again, find themselves clutching at a straw in the middle-overs. Jhye Richardson, who has an SR of 18.00 in this phase since 2020, is statistically their best option, but they would need him to bowl both up-top and at the death. Shami had an unimpressive SR in this phase last season (36.0), as did Chris Jordan (38.5). This leaves them with just Arshdeep and Meredith, who are really more effective and valuable at the death, as we’ll soon find out.
Punjab can, however, give themselves the best chance of succeeding in the middle by laying their faith on Murugan Ashwin. Ashwin was puzzlingly left out for 5 games last season, but in the 9 he played, he was the side’s best bowler in the middle - he not only struck once every 20 balls but also curbed the runs by maintaining an ER of 6.95. As good as Bishnoi was last season, the young leggie, despite being the side’s go-to bowler, struggled to strike when required. That might have to change for the Kings this season if they are to dominate in the middle.
But it won’t be easy….
Punjab play 12 of their 14 group matches at the Wankhede, Chinnaswamy and the Narendra Modi Stadium, three venues that have been least conducive to spin since 2019. In spin-friendly wickets in UAE last year, the duo of Ashwin and Bishnoi were able to keep the runs under check even though they did not pick as many wickets as they’d have liked, but that might not be the case this season. Flat wickets will enable teams to torch the spinners and thus one of Bishnoi or Ashwin enduring a bad season could have grave consequences for the Kings. Their spinners will need to step up, but so will their seamers.
Death overs | The less spoken, the better
Remember us saying that taking wickets is of no use if you continue leaking runs anyway? Here’s why: Punjab took 2.85 wkts per game at the death in IPL 2020, the best tally of any team. Yet, quite flabbergastingly, they leaked, on average, 10.74 runs per over, a figure which was the second-worst in the entire competition. Shami (11.46), Jordan (11.16) and Cottrell (13.25) all went at over 11 an over, while it was their spinners - Bishnoi (7.43) and M Ashwin (7.88) - who ironically ended up being the most economical at the fag end. Looking back, it was truly remarkable that they found themselves in playoff contention till the final day of the season, despite boasting an attack that found it hard not to bowl right in the slot at the death.
Is there light at the end of the tunnel this season?
Yes, there is. They have gone from Cottrell to Jhye Richardson, which is like moving from Nokia XpressMusic to iPhone 12 Pro. In his last 21 non-international T20s, Richardson has conceded at under 9 (8.74) in overs 15-20, while in 2021, this figure is even better (8.17). Meredith, too, has been a handful for batsmen at the death, having maintained an ER of 8.23 and 7.50 across the last two years in the BBL. But Punjab really doesn’t have to look at just their newcomers, they had a gun death bowler last season, in the form of Arshdeep.
In IPL 2020, the left-armer, using his angle and variations, maintained an ER of 9.62 in overs 15-20, while also striking once every 8.8 balls. It was his exceptional death bowling which in fact, helped Punjab snatch victory from the jaws of defeat against the Sunrisers in Dubai. Taking a cue out of Arshdeep’s showing and utilizing him more would be prudent.
But, again, everything will ultimately come down to how Punjab play their cards. Shami and Jordan had their moments at the death last season, but while the former is a perennial liability in the back-end, the latter has been on a sharp decline, as was evident from his showing in the India T20Is, where he conceded 12.91 runs per over at the death.
Punjab, without a shadow of a doubt, have their fair share of x-factor bowlers, but IPL titles are not won by occasional brilliance; consistency, at the end of the day, is what separates good bowling sides from the great ones. The Kings have the arsenal to blow teams out of the park sporadically, but it is hard not to look at this unit and think that an implosion, at some stage, is inevitable. There are just too many chinks in the armour which will be exacerbated by the venues they will be playing in.