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IPL rewards the tough and brave – cricket

The final on Tuesday night may have been a bit insipid but every IPL so far has been nothing but two months of fun and exciting cricket.

That’s the beauty of T20s; with the IPL there is the added attraction of the presence of a galaxy of cricket stars. It’s a formula that cannot go wrong. The next IPL could possibly be in just five months, but that too will be consumed with the same gusto I am sure.

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This IPL, we saw one of the most engrossing league stages ever. Let’s not forget that this is the major chunk of any IPL–the league stage–and this time no one was sure which would be the three teams to join Mumbai in the play-offs right till the very end. It made every match equally important.

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Mumbai Indians are now looking a bit like how Australia did in the late 1990s and in the 2000s on the international stage, in a different league from the rest. Australia won three World Cups on the trot in that period, MI have won the IPL four times in the last six years.

What makes MI tick?

I have realised that winning the IPL is dependent first and foremost on your performance off the field, before the tournament starts, in the auction and player trade offs, where MI have become real masters.

To prove my point, let me ask you a question: are you surprised that MI won the title this year?

We all knew, before the tournament started, that they had a strong team with no major weakness, a team packed with T20 game changers.

In comparison, look at RCB, who have failed to address their ailments for years now. They have two big holes that they have never managed to fill: their seam bowling attack and a dependable middle-order batsman who can bat around Virat Kohli and AB de Villiers. You cannot have Umesh Yadav, Mohd Siraj and Navdeep Saini all in one T20 squad. All three are very talented but more suited to the longer format. They do not have the control over their pace and variations that say, Jasprit Bumrah has, and this makes them big gambles.

What I also love about the IPL is its length. Each team plays 14 league games and the winner has to play at least 16 before they can lift the trophy. Unlike the T20 World Cup, two weeks of brilliance is not enough to win the title. That’s why gambling with players does not work here. At the end of such a long-drawn affair only the fittest survive, a team that has individuals who can sustain their performances over two months.

It’s about time that franchises realise that the IPL is only for the mentally tough and not so much for players with promise, power and youth. For one thing, the romanticism of franchises with fast tracked U19 players must stop; also, this fascination for raw young fast bowlers that teams like KKR seem to have. The T20 format is not for such players, certainly not the IPL, because it’s like performing on a global stage.

Kamlesh Nagarkoti, Navdeep Saini, Kartik Tyagi, etc, are very impressive quick bowlers, but when you see their actual contribution to the team it pales in comparison to ones from slower seam bowlers like Sandeep Sharma, Thangarasu Natarajan or Deepak Chahar. What they don’t have in pace and bounce they make up with T20 “smarts”; unless the young raw fast bowlers show some of that smartness they will be hit or miss.

It’s the same with youthful batsmen picked on potential hitting power.

Even on flat batting pitches in India the average IPL score is still around 170, so this need for power to hit the ball out of the ground is exaggerated. Sure, you need one or two of them, but what you need more are batsmen with sound temperaments who can soak in the pressure, and find ways out of constantly changing tough situations.

Priyam Garg is a good example: SRH batted him in crucial positions in the playoff games and the pressure of the situations visibly got to him. Perhaps a more experienced batsman with 50 or so first-class matches under the belt would have coped better.

Because the tournament is long, it’s also important to find players who are able to find form even after some failures; for this, a strong mind is essential.

I would rather back an experienced first-class batsman who can score at a rate of 125/130 instead of a player with not much match experience just because he tonked a few balls out of the ground in a regional T20 league.

I remember Sandeep Patil telling me how he had a problem with old timers comparing him with his father Madhusudhan Patil, who was an A division club player. The senior Patil was the more impressive big hitter according to them. Sandeep’s view was that it’s one thing hitting big sixes in club matches and a completely different matter hitting sixes under pressure on a big stage.

Rookie fast bowlers and batsmen will let you down when the pressure is on. I have seen this happen many times in the IPL. “Mystery” spinners are the only exception to this rule.

The only weakness that the losing finalists Delhi Capitals had was their concentration of youth, led by a youthful, inexperienced T20 captain. Shreyas Iyer got the captaincy out of chance when Gautam Gambhir resigned his captaincy and he has done a fantastic job. But now they must relieve him of the role and get him to blossom more as a batsman.

Who better than Ravi Ashwin in that role instead? This again is one of those off-field decisions that could dictate the long-term fortunes of an IPL team.

RR and RCB don’t have great IPL records not because they don’t play well, but because they don’t pick the right players.

I repeat: much of the IPL is won at the auction tables.

MI do this part brilliantly, plus they have the winning culture rooted now and this embraces every player in their dressing room. Even Trent Boult, a seamer that another franchise did not want, enters the MI dressing room and has the best season ever.

Captaincy is another key element in T20s and MI have got this one right too. What’s not obviously seen is the selfless approach to everything they do on the ground, the captain leading by example in this regard.

No top order batsman in this team goes out there trying to get a score for himself, they bat for the moment. Ishan Kishan will not be thinking of staying not out in a small run chase; he will look to whack the 3rd ball he faces for a six.

I spotted batsmen in almost every other franchise who were playing more for themselves than the team at vital stages of the tournament because the IPL is also a fast-track selection stage for the national side.

As the IPL evolves, I would like to see teams take a clinical and ruthless approach to winning. I would like to see the coach become the centre of power and not allow players to have their own agenda. A player’s interest can sometimes be in conflict with the team but the coach’s will never be.

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