Ravichandran Ashwin, the Boost Kings XI Punjab Needed
The last time Kings XI Punjab won more than they lost in an IPL season was four years ago in 2014. Since then, their fortunes have hung by a thread despite them boasting of quite a few overseas star performers in the middle-order.
The complete revamp in the 2018 IPL auction was something Kings XI desired more than most teams. Their Indian contingent of players weren't too strong and their overseas firepower was restricted to their batting. For them to replicate performances from the 2014 and 2008 season, they needed a strong leader, a guiding force.
After the auctions there was complete hullabaloo surrounding Kings XI Punjab. They had bid vehemently at the auctions and bought quite a few talented players. In David Miller, Yuvraj Singh and Ravichandran Ashwin, they had captaincy options. But who would lead the team out at the IPL remained a question mark until the Tamil Nadu all-rounder was thrust into the role.
"I see it as a natural progression for having played cricket for so long at the top level. I have always felt I had it in me (to be captain). WV Raman identified me as a captain when I was 21 years old. I ended up winning a few titles for TN. But for a bowler to become a captain, which is not something natural in the country, this is something fascinating," said the 31-year-old upon being given the role.
Ashwin was always considered a thinking cricketer. For him, the translation to captaincy was expected to be seamless but this was Punjab and the team, despite having a few popular names was considered weak on form.
“They [Kings XI Punjab] were wildly off-the-mark [at the auctions], as not only did they select the poorest form players (as a unit) this year, but theirs is also among the weaker bowling sides. The current match-ups suggest they will struggle the most among all the teams this year, as they have so many times in the past. It would take some freakish performances, ala 2014, to get them into any kind of contention, though for that, they would need X-factor players, but sadly, on that, they are the most suspect amongst all teams this year,” Jaideep Varma, one of the pioneers of the now shut down, Impact Index, wrote on GQ India.
Five matches into the season and Kings XI sit comfortably at number two in the points table. Of course there has been the X-factor performances. KL Rahul started the season off with a scintillating 14 ball half-century and Chris Gayle returned to the top of the order to smash the first hundred of the season.
Infact, Gayle and Rahul have been the talk of the IPL so far. Carrying their friendship from Royal Challengers Bangalore, the duo nailed down most teams with a mix of belligerence and smart batting. Such has been the impact of these two that the shoody performances from the middle-order, specifically Yuvraj Singh and Aaron Finch, have gone unnoticed.
Amongst bowlers, the Indian ones have all gone at over 8.5 rpo. Andrew Tye and young Mujeeb Ur Rehman have struggled to take wickets and haven't been too stingy in giving runs either. They have conceded in excess of 175 in the last three games.
Yet, they have managed to win. Not just win, but win easy. While the new-found partnership of Rahul and Gayle have indeed eased things, Ravichandran Ashwin deserves praise for the manner in which he has led this unit.
Dumped from the Indian limited-overs teams, Ashwin had more than a point to prove and has been a revelation at the helm for Kings XI Punjab. Against Sunrisers Hyderabad, one of the strongest teams in the tournament, Ashwin buckled the trend of winning the toss and bowling first by opting to take the Hyderabad bowling head on.
Rahul and Gayle thwarted the Sunrisers bowling and put on a real good score on board against a top notch bowling attack. With a huge target staring at them, Sunrisers’ weaker suit, their batting, came into focus and they succumbed to Kings XI's bowling, which does not really reek intimidation.
Against Kolkata Knight Riders, Ashwin opted to silence Sunil Narine with young Mujeeb. The trap was set for Narine's wild slogs and he fell right into it. Though Kolkata recovered to post a handy total, Kings XI had enough firepower to dent the Knights.
Even the move to keep Gayle out from the first two games worked wonders as when he did come into the XI, the West Indian was hungry to prove a point and did so disdainfully. David Miller and Marcus Stoinis were dumped the moment they faltered and Aaron Finch was brought into the middle-order, a role he revelled in for Gujarat Lions. Though he hasn't fired yet, Finch’s time will come.
Ashwin's innovative captaincy and daredevilry have seen Kings XI perched in the top half of the points table. He has shown exceptional match awareness and shrewd tactical nous to silence opposition. However, these are still early days and it remains to be seen how he tackles when Gayle eventually runs out of gas, though that appears quite unlikely at the moment.