IPL 2015 April 21, 2015

The Steyn-Boult selection conundrum

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Right decision to play Boult - Steyn

It is 3pm, still an hour before the game begins. This is mid-April heat unleashing its worst. Sunrisers Hyderabad, however, are out there training at full tilt, as are the visiting Delhi Daredevils. It's a Saturday and there is a sizeable crowd already in Visakhapatnam.

Just behind the sightscreen, a group of youngsters is waving a huge banner that screams: 'Come back, Steyn Gun.' It doesn't escape Dale Steyn's attention even as he sends down a few deliveries on the practice wicket.

There is an eruption of applause when the toss is completed and the teams flash on the giant screen as Steyn's name is called out by the stadium announcer. Only Shikhar Dhawan, among the Sunrisers, draws a better response. A frisson runs through the ground when Steyn gets his first touch on the ball in the deep; it's amplified further when he enters the attack. The crowd well and truly finds its heartbeat when he bowls a conditions-defying 14th over, making Yuvraj Singh and JP Duminy hop around to his 140-plus lifters. Later, Steyn, like a master conductor, even directs the Mexican wave. He is friendly and warm. He is popular.

A few days before that, at Bangalore airport, Trent Boult is patiently obliging selfie requests. Boult is the new kid on the block. The flavour of the season. And the leader of the attack in the three games that Sunrisers have played up to that point. The nature of Sunrisers' composition means Steyn has had to sit out. There is enough debate on the selection already, but David Warner's take on Boult being 'just ahead of Dale' has only added more spice to it.

Boult, his reputation enhanced by his exploits during the World Cup, wears his fame lightly. He is particularly nice with children. 'How are you, buddy?' he greets a boy who doesn't know Boult's name. Helpfully spelling it out for him, Boult holds the tiny fingers of another boy, who wants to 'hand-shake', but is too shy to do so. It also helps he bowls all right: Boult is the leading-wicket taker* of the team thus far.

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Two world-class bowlers. Two crowd-favourites. Two good fellas. But room only for one. Such is the dynamics of the squad system, and it has helped that despite Steyn's probable disappointment - it's understood he wasn't even inclined to grant dug-out interviews to the broadcaster during the matches he sat out - he has swiftly killed even the slightest notion of uneasiness with a resounding endorsement of Boult. "I don't know whether you are trying to look for something [controversial]," Steyn tells ESPNcricinfo with a laugh.

"It's definitely the right decision [to play Boult] after the World Cup he had. We all know that someone is going to miss out. And it's one guy out of the bowlers."

"Most definitely not [feeling threatened]. I'll back myself over anybody anytime to get the job done. I use an example: I hate riding in the passengers' seat. I am the guy that wants to drive, and it's the same thing when there is a cricket game on. But it is not my life that's at stake. I'm the first one to be honest and say, 'I understand that. That's cool,' and I am able to go ahead with it."

Steyn's "episode" with Grant Elliott in the World Cup semi-final showed there is room in competitive sport for personal empathy. "It takes a humble man to be able to come and pick up somebody like that," Steyn says of Elliott's gesture. "And it takes a man to also stand up from there and say thank you very much. I think it was one of the better moments I have had in my cricket career."

Beyond the bonhomie, though, the Boult-Steyn conundrum is a real issue for Sunrisers to grapple with. Imagine signing up Al Pacino and Robert De Niro only for the script to accommodate just one of them in any given scene.

"Ideally both of us opening the bowling together would be just fantastic," Steyn says. "But unfortunately our line-up is not set up like that."

This isn't a situation that's unique to Sunrisers. Almost every team in the IPL strives for balance, which essentially means slotting in genuine allrounders. Mumbai Indians have, for instance, played seam-bowling allrounder Corey Anderson ahead of a pure fast bowler like Mitchell McClenaghan, until the former had to sit out of the Royal Challengers Bangalore game with an injury.

Teams like Rajasthan Royals and Chennai Super Kings, too, have the luxury of quality allrounders like James Faulkner and Dwayne Bravo, who lengthen an already formidable batting order. Sunrisers face a double whammy in this regard: neither do they have a robust batting line-up, nor do they have a first-rate specialist allrounder.

And it isn't as if the wickets they are playing their home matches on - in Visakhapatnam and Hyderabad - are responsive to quick bowling. In fact, the sluggish nature of the surface in Visakhapatnam during the Sunrisers-Rajasthan game was criticised by both the camps.

All these provide the context to Ravi Bopara's presence as one of the overseas players, the batting allrounder required to contribute with his medium pace. "It's difficult because, if you are going to play both [Steyn and Boult], you have a short batting line-up," Bopara tells ESPNcricinfo.

"Maybe [we are light on batting]. I think our batting hasn't really fired apart from that [the Bangalore game], so it's pretty dangerous to leave out a batsman for another bowler. Then again, it's a dangerous attack when you have got them coming in. If you bowl a team out for 130-140, our top-four batsmen can score that."

Without Boult and Steyn playing together, Sunrisers have conceded 160-plus in the three of their four matches, with Chennai Super Kings piling on 209 in Chennai. In a seam-heavy attack with Karn Sharma being the lone spinner, Bopara is Sunrisers' second-highest wicket-taker with four scalps, while Bhuvneshwar Kumar (3), Praveen Kumar (2), Ashish Reddy (2) and Karn (2) have all chipped in as well. Only once have they bowled out an opposition.

As exciting as the proposition of a Steyn-Boult duet is, with the former providing the neck-vein bulging counterpoint to the New Zealander's nerveless swing-bowling, it is difficult to predict if and when that will happen. The Kings XI Punjab game on April 27 might present the best opportunity yet with it being played in seam-friendly Mohali.

But as Steyn puts it, their pairing "might not happen, it might happen, and when it doesn't happen you just got to come and roll with it."

If and when it does happen, it's guaranteed box-office bonanza.

*Statistics updated after the Sunrisers Hyderabad-Delhi Daredevils game

Arun Venugopal is a senior sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo

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