Middle-order bluntness holds Sunrisers back
In their maiden IPL season in 2013, Sunrisers Hyderabad found a way to win games by flaunting their bowling strength in made-to-order conditions at home. Their formula was simple: score at least in the region of 130, and choke the opponents on Hyderabad's slow and low surface, or bowl first and restrict them to around 130, and chase them down slowly but surely. Sunrisers have won 11 out of 16 games when they have made sub-140 scores. No other team has managed more than five such wins.
This formula didn't work as effectively last year owing to a combination of factors. With the first half of the tournament being played in the UAE, some of the home advantage was negated. Also, the Hyderabad wicket produced more runs than it had the previous season. Consequently, they dropped two rungs from their fourth-place finish in 2013.
The lone constant among the variables has been Sunrisers' lightness in the batting department. At 7.49, their run-rate is the lowest among all the teams since 2013. In the 34 matches Sunrisers have played in the period, they have managed only 10 scores in excess of 160. Every other team has done better than them, with Kings XI Punjab and Chennai Super Kings topping the list with 20 160-plus scores each.
A longstanding problem for Sunrisers is they have never had much batting ammo. Like in the seasons past, their scoring is overly dependent on two or three players with no failsafe in place. Shikhar Dhawan and David Warner, former and present captains of the side, represent the top-heaviness, and are faced with the uneasy paradox of providing a forceful start and yet not risk losing their wickets early in the absence of firepower in the middle order. Their dismissals are invariably followed by sluggish meandering with little end-game explosion.
Even accounting for the slowness of the wicket against Rajasthan Royals on Thursday, their early exits effectively stamped out any ambitions of a sizeable total. This was in stark contrast to their successful pursuit of 167 to gun down Royal Challengers Bangalore, where both Warner and Dhawan dictated play to the opposition.
It isn't as if Sunrisers haven't looked to solve the problem. Their auction strategy was a step in that direction, as they snapped up Kevin Pietersen, Kane Williamson, Eoin Morgan and Ravi Bopara. Unfortunately for them, Pietersen pulled out of the IPL and Bopara, while being a revelation with his seam-bowling, doesn't launch enough late-order strikes with the bat.
Williamson's is an intriguing case with the management playing him as low as No.6 against Super Kings, pushing him up to three against Royal Challengers and then playing Morgan ahead of him against Rajasthan. Morgan, coming off a disastrous World Cup, took time to bed down on Thursday, and just when he seemed to have gained sufficient confidence to tee off, he perished to Pravin Tambe.
What would haunt Sunrisers more is the inability of their domestic batsmen to consistently make big contributions. Hanuma Vihari has been tried in the past without much success. Naman Ojha, while capable of the big hits, has merely flickered while the likes of Ashish Reddy don't offer sustainable solutions. Only KL Rahul, who has had a memorable run of late in red-ball cricket, displayed his adaptability with an unbeaten 28-ball 44 against Royal Challengers.
Sunrisers need Rahul to provide more insurance at the top as much as they need Bopara to crank up his hitting at the back end. More importantly, perhaps, they need to sort out the Morgan-Williamson jigsaw and put in place a settled combination.
There has been a lot of chatter on Trent Boult being preferred to Dale Steyn, but Sunrisers have their bowling sorted. It's the long-suffering batting flank that is crying out for attention. The tournament has just begun, and for Warner & Co., now is as good a time as any to carry out repairs.
With stats inputs from Bishen Jeswant
Arun Venugopal is a senior sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo