review-1

First up, hearty congratulations to Mumbai Indians on their success in IPL 2017. In becoming the first team to win the title three times, Mumbai have set the benchmark for the other franchise to chase and to have achieved this victory in such thrilling fashion must have added to the delight of Rohit Sharma and his team.

I personally think we could have had better surfaces for the playoff ties, but the offshoot of having tracks that defeated the stroke-makers was that we had thrilling contests all the way through. For all those that have cried out for balance between bat and ball, the way the playoffs unravelled would have been particularly satisfying, though my choice would have been truer tracks with bigger scores that invariably grab the interests of the fans a lot more.

We at Sunrisers Hyderabad would have loved to have had the chance to defend our title in our backyard, in front of our passionate and loyal fans, but that wasn’t to be. It was disappointing to go out in the manner in which we did in the Eliminator. There has been much debate over the efficacy of the DLS system in 20-over cricket in light of our rain-affected match against Kolkata Knight Riders in Bangalore. All I can say is that, and especially in light of what happened in the final when Mumbai successfully defended 129 against Rising Pune Supergiant, we would have fancied our chances on a totally uncharacteristic Chinnaswamy surface even though we had only 128 on the board, given the versatility and quality of our bowling attack.

Overall, though, and despite the heartbreak of the Eliminator defeat, we can look back on the season gone by with reasonable satisfaction and a great deal of pride in the manner in which we set out to defend the title. By the time the tournament began we had rid ourselves of the pressures of being the defending champions. Everyone bought into the fact that this was a new tournament, that what had happened last season was history. Our focus was one over at a time, one innings at a time, one game at a time, all leading up to the first aspiration which was to make it to the playoffs.

A lot of the work before any major tournament is done off the field, not just in terms of planning and strategising but also in getting the unit together, thinking and pulling in the same direction. That is where the week or so leading up to the IPL becomes extremely crucial. This year, with the IPL starting a little over a week after the conclusion of Australia’s Test series in India, there was little time for the entire squad to get together ahead of the tournament. While several of our squad members were involved in the Test series, others were doing domestic duty playing the Challenger Series in Visakhapatnam.

Those who were not involved in this action arrived for a ten-day camp full of energy and expectation, looking to buy into the ideas of Tom Moody, our experienced and inspirational coach, and Simon Helmot, our assistant coach who plays able foil to the Head Coach. Then the rest arrived, somewhat fatigued but quickly got energised by the prospect of rebuilding bonds and embarking on another exciting journey.

The few days together in the build-up to the tournament are less about topping up of cricket skills and more about team-bonding. Even though the core group was pretty much the same from the previous year, there were a few new additions that needed to get to know the others. We were very happy with the resources we had targeted and obtained at the auction in February, in a bid to plug some of the gaps from the previous seasons, and it was a chance for the newcomers to understand the philosophy within the Sunrisers set-up.

These team-bonding sessions are meant as ice-breaking exercises designed to shed whatever inhibitions there might be. Jade, our trainer, is particularly adept at designing games and exercises that are a great deal of fun and occasionally embarrassing, but one of the great strengths of any good team is to trust each other, to enjoy a little bit of ribbing and leg-pulling, to laugh together and to enjoy each others’ company. It is a tack that has worked well for us over the years, and every year, the familial bonds within the unit only grows stronger, which I believe is ultimate affirmation that we are doing the right things.

We also have a Fines Committee with Bipul Sharma as Chairman with fines for the most inane of things — for joining the team late even if it is due to international commitments, for coming into the tournament having been in great form for the national team, you name it. It is all good and clean fun, and the guys are always curious to know where the next fine is going to come from, and for what bizarre reason. And yes, the support staff is not spared, either!

It is also at the start of the event that there are multiple sponsor-commitments to honour, and sometimes that can be fatiguing. But the Sunrisers marketing team worked beautifully that it was not the case when it came to our team, striking a beautiful balance between keeping up those commitments while at the same time making sure that it did not impact on our practice or our mental reserves.

It was important for us as a unit to start the tournament well, and we did so with a strong performance headlined by Yuvraj Singh in our first game, against Royal Challengers Bangalore. Gradually, the pieces began to fall in place. Rashid Khan was every bit as good and more as we had hoped he would be when we went for him in the auction, and he and Mohammad Nabi brought a freshness of ideas and approach that made them instant hits with the rest of the group.

Davey Warner took a little time finding his feet, which was understandable because he was coming off a middling Test series against India, but Tom worked tirelessly with him, impressing upon him the need to bat like the feared Davey Warner. Gradually, as he began to purr along, you could see his confidence swell. He batted not just with flair but also great responsibility, such as batting the entire 20 overs against Kings XI Punjab, and steering the team home by remaining unbeaten in our must-win last league tie against Gujarat Lions.

As skipper, Davey was every bit as aggressive as he was with the bat. He was always on the lookout for wickets, and he encouraged his bowlers to do the same. He gave them confidence and empowered them by making them responsible for their actions — they had the luxury of setting their fields and therefore had no excuses to offer for poor execution, though it must be said that it wasn’t often that they were guilty of poor execution.

I was extremely happy to see Shikhar Dhawan score as many runs as he did. Shikhar and Davey form a very potent combination — I am told they have shared more hundred partnerships than any other pair in all T20 cricket — and for us, it is imperative that they click in tandem at the top of the tree. Shikhar’s was a tournament of two parts. In the early stages, he got his eye in, played within himself, and set himself up for the second half; as the tournament progressed, his fluency returned visibly and by the end, he was stroking the ball beautifully, which are all great signs for the Indian team headed to the Champions Trophy.

Kane Williamson did not have too many opportunities because of balance issues, with only four overseas players allowed; but when he did get his chances, he showed why he is among the top batsmen in the world. Yuvi was brilliant in patches, but his was a bit of a stop-start run. He missed a few games through illness and a few more through an injured finger, but when he was on song like in the first game and in Delhi against the Daredevils, he was as usual a treat to behold.

Because our top order, led by Davey and Shikhar and well backed-up by Kane and Moises Henriques, was quite consistent, someone like a Naman Ojha did not get to bat as many deliveries. This did not allow him to make the impact he has done in the past. But he was once again impeccable behind the stumps, of that there is little doubt.

Among the bowlers, Bhuvneshwar Kumar was as effective and penetrative as ever, his expanded repertoire and enhanced pace making him a handful with both the old ball and new. Rashid came in with a lot of expectations, but he bowled his leg-spinners and googlies with a maturity that belied his 17 years of age.

Team balance and composition issues meant we could not quite make place for Ben Cutting, one of our more influential players towards the business end of last season. Ben had been a massive asset, especially in the playoffs, with both bat and ball, but with Rashid fitting in beautifully and Kane showing tremendous touch when he did play, it was difficult for us to fit him into our scheme of things. And just when he was about to return to the XI, he fell ill — a combination of tremendous exhaustion and viral fever which rendered him unavailable with the playoff games beckoning.

There was lots of disappointment, however, for Ashish Nehra. Our most experienced bowler suffered from freak neck spasms that prevented him from carrying out even daily activities, let alone take part in cricketing activities. The neck injury ruled him out for two weeks, and when he regained match-fitness, he picked up a hamstring injury in his first game back, which ruled him out of the rest of the tournament.

While injuries of this nature are particularly devastating for the individual concerned, it does pave the way for the younger lights to step up and show their mettle. I was particularly impressed with how our two young quicks, Siddarth Kaul and Mohammed Siraj, embraced the responsibility in the absence of Ashish. Siddarth has been around for a while and has played in the IPL previously, but he took his bowling to a new level this time around. Siraj, on the other hand, is a very raw product, work in progress but he surely is one for the future. He is quick and whippy, has wonderful temperament and is unfazed by situations. I foresee big things for this strapping lad, both for our franchise and for Hyderabad cricket on the domestic scene.

I was also extremely impressed with Vijay Shankar for the way he acquitted himself in his limited chances. IPL is such that even though you have a squad of 25 or 26, we have steadfastly maintained a policy of continuity, desisting from chopping and changing unless the conditions or injuries so dictate. That means that several of our players do not get a chance to play at all, and I really feel for them because I know how desperate they are for the opportunity to prove themselves. They obviously understand why they are not in the playing eleven, but I can sense their disappointment. Despite that, they throw themselves wholeheartedly into the whole process, eager to learn and keep improving, and playing their part in ensuring that the team is harmonious and without rancour or egos.

But Vijay has shown that when the door does open up a little bit, he is more than capable of pushing it open all the way. He is a wonderful talent, much like Siraj, and is a proven performer on the domestic circuit. I like his attitude and his equanimity, and in his success is a message for the others looking to make their way into the side — be well-prepared and be ready to grab your chance as and when it does come your way.

There is also a great lesson to learn from Pravin Tambe. I just love his infectious enthusiasm and his innate love of being a part of the team. I have of course seen Pravin in the past but this season was the first time I interacted with him at close quarters. At 46 he maintains a hunger that would do someone half his age proud, and his work ethic is second to none. He is always the first to practise, bowls for as long as he is required to, is ready with a word of encouragement and a bottle of water, and does all this with a smile. If you are looking for someone who lives and breathes cricket, you need not look beyond Pravin. The on-field performers are the ones who walk away with the accolades, but the silent contributors like Pravin are their equals in my book.

It is this undiluted passion for the game and the camaraderie and togetherness that we would like to expand on in the seasons ahead. This edition might not have brought us the rewards we desired, but that does not take away from the fact everyone in the team is a champion. And played like a champion.