Sidharth Monga is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo
When you think of MS Dhoni in a tight finish and you have Kagiso Rabada in your side, it is natural to think of Rabada, Dhoni and Kanpur when Rabada shut him off with high pace and hard lengths. Thirteen balls, seven runs, one wicket in IPL is a favourable match-up too. It is natural opinion is divided then on Rishabh Pant's decision to bowl Tom Curran, playing in his first match in the UAE leg of this IPL, over Rabada in the 20th over in Delhi Capitals' loss to Chennai Super Kings in the first qualifier.
There is a case to be made to test Dhoni and Moeen Ali at their weakness against high pace, but you have to keep in mind that Rabada at death has been one of Capitals' problems for a while. He has the worst economy rate for those who have bowled at least ten overs at the death this IPL. He has not even been their first choice at the death: Avesh Khan has bowled 22 overs at the death to Rabada's 13. Even in the last-ball defeat to Royal Challengers Bangalore, Capitals were done and over with Rabada by the 17th over, an over that started the momentum shift. Avesh bowling the 19th over against Super Kings, an over often reserved for your best option at that time, was a reaffirmation that Capitals didn't have all the confidence in Rabada.
In short, it is a tempting choice to bowl Rabada at Dhoni and Moeen, but he is no Lasith Malinga of the 2019 final, who was the obvious choice for the final over despite figures of 3-0-42-0. Also, perhaps it didn't help that Avesh beat Dhoni twice with the slower ball, which might have titled Pant towards Curran.
Capitals coach Ricky Ponting said at the press conference that he had not discussed the merits and the reasons for that choice with Pant yet and that it would be thrashed out later, but he perhaps knew it would be unwise to focus just on one of the 40 overs.
And if a final over has to be fixated upon, why not the one in the first innings? At just five wickets down, you had Pant farming the strike in the last over and putting pressure on himself to do all the scoring. In eight balls in that sixth-wicket stand, Capitals scored nine runs, four of them off an inside edge.
Again, you can argue both ways about Pant's approach, but that's not the point here. The point is that Capitals' structure is a problem here. At a time when most teams are going for hitting depth, Capitals have played most of this UAE leg with Axar Patel at No. 7, and the Qualifier with him slated at No. 6.
It is difficult to argue against a team's style when they have won ten of the 15 matches played, still the joint-best success rate, on the back of a top-two finish last year and No. 3 the year before that. They have put together an attack that is suited for largely all the conditions this year's IPL has been played in. Yet when Marcus Stoinis got injured, they chose bowling depth over batting depth, which results in batters inhibiting themselves.
Four of Capitals' five losses have come batting first, making it just one win in regulation time in six matches batting first. One of those defeats was an unchecked collapse against Kolkata Knight Riders, two others a result of slightly sub-par totals trying to watch against a collapse because of lack of batting depth.
With Stoinis' injury, Capitals tried Steven Smith as a specialist batter for a while, but they realised their bowling was their strength and they needed to keep it so. More so because they needed some back-up for Rabada and R Ashwin, who presents an interesting dilemma.
In the last two matches, Ashwin has bowled just three overs because the opposition has been dominated by right-hand batters. He has bowled 32% of his deliveries this IPL with two right-hand batters in the middle, which is actually an achievement because there is no other offspinner in the IPL who has bowled more than 18% of his deliveries with two right-hand batters at the wicket. Put together, Washington Sundar and Jayant Yadav have bowled zero deliveries with two right-hand batters in the middle.
Ashwin is, quite simply, the only offspinner who can play regularly as a bowler alone, but such is the state of the game even he is being held back when two right-hand batters are in the middle. He has dismissed only two of them this IPL. Amit Mishra, who played, and played well, in Axar's absence in the first half, is an option to replace Ashwin, but do they have the confidence to pick for playoffs someone who has not played for nine matches now?
That being the state, there's no way Capitals don't create back-up for Rabada and Ashwin when they replace Stoinis. They tried Ripal Patel, but decided they needed more of a bowler. With no other allrounders available, Capitals left themselves with shallow batting, especially considering that none of Rabada, Ashwin, Avesh and Anrich Nortje can hit sixes. Such a set-up reduces the margin of error for batters, asking them to be precise with what they do. When you ask T20 batters for precision, you often end up with sub-par totals because most sides hit out with a bigger margin of error. Capitals have got this far hitting the fewest number of sixes this IPL; that tells you a lot about their batting approach and bowling quality.
This team structure is actually not too different to a side Ponting captained for half a season in IPL 2013. For a major part of that season, Mumbai Indians had Harbhajan Singh batting at No. 7. They had bowling cover in Kieron Pollard, who bowled 31 overs, but the job with the bat had to be done by the top six. It was not by design, of course. They tried Jacob Oram as the second allrounder but he had a hernia issue and played only one match. Dwayne Smith, his replacement, was good enough to bowl only five overs in the whole tournament.
Ponting is now part of another leadership group left with a similar team structure. Their next opponents, Knight Riders, will stretch their bowling again. Nitish Rana somehow always gets the better of Ashwin, and there are a few left-hand batters to make it difficult for left-arm spinner Axar, so it will be risky to play a specialist batter at No. 6 should Stoinis not be ready. They will hate to be batting first against Knight Riders after they managed to score only 127 in the league match in Sharjah, the venue of the second Qualifier.
If anyone does, Ponting knows the IPL can still be won with a shallow batting line-up, but it will take the quality of their bowlers to overcome the structure of their team. That's something they have done for ten of their 15 matches so far.