Twenty thoughts from IPL 2014
An IPL with no controversy is still an IPL - No slapgate. No expose of rigged auctions. No twitter meltdown involving cabinet ministers and tournament officials. No news of financial irregularities. No talk of conflicts of interest. No enthusiastic sons-in-law. No dodgy no-balls. After the muck-fest that was IPL 2013, the organisers must be relieved to go through an entire season without any scandal.
Administrators had promised to do away with cheerleaders as part of a plan to focus more on cricket. They didn't go that far, but annoyances like in-game chats with players and interviews with the local cinema star (Trisha, Siddharth, etc) were minimised or done away with. The IPL opening ceremony, perhaps due to UAE rules, was a closed-door affair and not a much-trumpeted gala featuring a global pop star like Katy Perry or Pitbull as in previous years.
The best teams played the final, which is as good an endorsement for the format as any. Kings XI Punjab were the class of the field in the first half of the season, while Knight Riders shook off a flaky start to peak at the right time. Knight Riders were deserving winners, for finding a way past Kings XI despite their two best players - Sunil Narine and Robin Uthappa - failing in the final.
Robin Uthappa's revival was the most compelling story of the season. He topped the tournament run-charts, despite hitting only 18 sixes. In contrast, Glenn Maxwell and Dwayne Smith, his closest competitors for the Orange Cap, smashed 70 sixes between them. Knight Riders' brilliant bowling attack made it the best team to be batting for, and Uthappa surely benefitted - his streak of ten successive 40-plus scores included eight games where they were chasing middling targets, which allowed him to play at his pace.
Home and away became increasingly irrelevant. The first leg being shifted to the UAE was unavoidable, but Cuttack hosted both a home game for Knight Riders and an away game for them. Two teams - Royals and Super Kings - didn't play a single game in their traditional home cities.
Chris Gayle, Shane Watson and Kevin Pietersen were poor, and it took a toll on their respective teams. Gayle arrived unfit, and was a shadow of his usual self when he got to play. Watson fell apart as a leader, and Brad Hodge had to step up when Corey Anderson was destroying Rajasthan. Pietersen's mind was at least partly on his off-field battles with the ECB. Overall, a lesson for teams looking to build their teams around a single high-profile buy.
Glenn Maxwell's slump came in a clutch of inconsequential rubbers, while his failures in the play-off against Chennai and in the final didn't stop Kings XI from running up gigantic scores. However, their approach in the final - promoting George Bailey and Wriddhiman Saha - was perhaps dictated by Maxwell's form. If he had been among the runs, he may have gone in at 3, and Punjab might have made those 15 extra runs.
Sehwag. Vohra. Saha. Maxwell. Miller. Bailey. Six dashers, no blocker, and all in form. Kings XI's batting line-up is the gold standard against which all IPL batting sides should be compared.
Mumbai's discards who were strong contenders for a place in the team of the tournament: Yuzvendra Chahal, Glenn Maxwell, Dwayne Smith, Akshar Patel. Did Mumbai muck it up at the auction?
MS Dhoni had a peculiar season. He took tight chases deep and struck nerveless sixes in the end to win matches. Yet, in the playoff against Kings XI, he struggled after holding himself back for too long. He had an entire season to find a way to replace Dwayne Bravo, but failed. He made some questionable on-field calls - most notably when he backed David Hussey's part-time rusty offspin in the final over against RCB. And he was unusually heated in his comments after losing the playoff. Unusual, for a captain who took it all stoically while India were getting repeatedly hammered in away Tests.
Dale Steyn's death bowling came apart four times in the season - against MS Dhoni, AB de Villiers, George Bailey and Yusuf Pathan. Perhaps, fast length balls in the corridor just don't work against 21st century hitters, that stunning final over against New Zealand in the World T20 not withstanding.
Is Sunil Narine the most valuable T20 player in the world? Always called on to bowl tough overs at the death, he was freakishly consistent. It became a cliché that teams playing Knight Riders had only 16 overs to score off. And the knowledge that he was waiting at the end of the innings forced teams to go on all-out attack earlier than they would like. Briefly, during the final over of the tournament, you wondered whether Narine might cost Knight Riders the title as he fumbled against Parvinder Awana, but a scampered single averted that cruel twist.
A slew of low-cost spinners were among the performers of the season as well: Akshar (Rs 75 lakh), Chahal (10 lakh) and Pravin Tambe (10 lakh). Others got smaller roles but made an impact: Shivam Sharma (10 lakhs), Karanaveer Singh (10 lakhs) and Shreyas Gopal (10 lakhs).
The umpiring was substandard, with games featuring too many glaring errors. The umpire cam was an innovation that resulted in unpleasant pictures when the umpire shook his head to turn down a decision or a player filled up the screen when he was talking to the official. Occasionally it worked, especially for catches around midwicket when viewed from square leg. Relatively old-school Hawk-Eye graphics would have been a better viewer aid.
87 off 25 A sense of disappointment lingers over Suresh Raina's international career, but his IPL performances brook no argument. The most consistent batsman over seven seasons of the tournament, he produced arguably the best innings of all in the playoff against Kings XI. All sorts of records were laid to waste as he showed there was no need to slog even while scoring at a strike rate of 348, highlighted by the shot of the innings - a nonchalant tuck to midwicket for four though the ball from Parvinder Awana was full and angling away.
The fielding in the IPL was its usual mix of amateurish incompetence and world-class brilliance. Kieron Pollard and Chris Lynn produced grabs that will linger long in the memory, but a large number of matches also featured comical drops - starting with Lasith Malinga putting down a sitter that changed the opening game of the tournament.
Feeling blue. Yet again there was a preponderance of teams in the IPL's favourite colour, perhaps in an attempt to link the franchise with the national team's kit. When Mumbai Indians took on Royals, it was hard to distinguish the teams. At least the disbanding of Deccan Chargers and Pune Warriors brought down the number of blues from five to three.
Pakistan players remained persona non grata. There were Pakistan coaches, Pakistan umpires, Pakistan commentators, and Shoaib Akhtar regaled viewers from the studio but the talents of Saeed Ajmal and Shahid Afridi stay off the IPL stage. Also, with Sri Lanka players ignored this season, England players generally not favoured, Bangladesh and Zimbabwe players a rarity, the overseas cricketers in the IPL came almost entirely from just four countries.
Twenty20 has made batting orders more fluid than before, but Royals took that idea to extremes. A profitable opening partnership of Ajinkya Rahane and Karun Nair was shunted to the middle order for one game, Stuart Binny was stubbornly persisted with at around No. 4 or 5 though he was woefully short of runs, and accomplished batsmen like Steven Smith and Brad Hodge were sometimes held back as late as No. 8. It's toss-up whether those decisions were taken after deep analysis or a spin-the-wheel basis.
Short is sweet - The number of games in 2014 was down to 60 - that's 16 matches fewer than in 2013 and 2012, and it showed. The IPL buzz did not flag this time and the cricket craze built up leading into the playoffs. Traditionally, franchisees have clamoured for more games to be packed into a season, with an eye on the incremental eyeballs and gate revenue. But IPL 2014 proved that less is more.
Siddarth Ravindran is a senior sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo; Nitin Sundar is social media manager