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Can Warner the player resuscitate Sunrisers, and his form?

The former captain is likely to return to the XI to replace Bairstow, but has he come to terms with just being a player?

Hemant Brar
Hemant Brar
David Warner lost the captaincy as well as his place in the side towards the end of the first phase of IPL 2021  •  BCCI/IPL

David Warner lost the captaincy as well as his place in the side towards the end of the first phase of IPL 2021  •  BCCI/IPL

"Facing something new can mean fear or excitement. This time I'm going for excitement."
David Warner was promoting his bat sponsor but these could very well have been his inner thoughts as he resumes the IPL with Sunrisers Hyderabad. This time, only as a player.
Warner has a special relationship with the IPL. It's the only T20 league in the world he regularly features in. When he returned to the tournament in 2019, after missing the 2018 season because of his ball-tampering ban, Sunrisers' coach at the time, Tom Moody, said Warner was "jumping out of his skin" to start the campaign.
In 2020, Warner was reinstated as Sunrisers captain and helped them reach the playoffs for the fifth straight season.
But the IPL is a cruel beast. It has got little space for emotions, and players are often evaluated on cold numbers. In 2021, when Warner registered an underwhelming strike rate of 110.28 across six games, Sunrisers didn't hesitate to drop him, which meant he also lost the captaincy.
There are times when a batter is short of runs but not out of form. For Warner, it was the opposite. He was still managing some runs but was not able to score them freely on Chennai's sluggish pitches. Sunrisers played their first five games in Chennai; Warner's scores in the last three of them were 36 off 34, 37 off 37 and 6 off 8.
Even when Sunrisers moved to Delhi, Warner's struggles didn't end. Against Chennai Super Kings, he consumed 55 balls for his 57 and then watched the opposition chase down 172 in 18.3 overs. Warner knew his innings had done more harm than good to his team. After the game, he put his hand up and took "full responsibility" for the defeat.
With Sunrisers having only one win from six games, something had to give. The team management decided two batters, one allrounder, and Rashid Khan was the best combination for their four overseas slots. Jonny Bairstow and Kane Williamson were faring much better, so it was Warner who had to make way for an allrounder.
Warner is Hyderabad's adopted son. While most franchises in the IPL have an Indian superstar in their ranks, Warner has been the face, heart and soul of Sunrisers for more than half a decade. Plus, he has been their most successful captain and by far the most prolific batter. In his six seasons for Sunrisers, Warner has crossed the 500-run mark every single time. No other batter in the tournament has been as consistent.
When he is not winning them games, he is winning their fans' hearts on social media. In the first half of 2020, when Covid-19 forced shut the whole world, Warner created a new one for himself on TikTok, where he and his family were often seen shaking a leg to South Indian songs. When he was not dancing, he was transforming himself - using a face-morphing filter - into Prabhas from the movie Baahubali, or Rajinikanth from Robot 2.0, and re-enacting iconic scenes. It felt as if he was giving the Sunrisers fans something to cheer about after the IPL was postponed.
No wonder then the team management's decision left Warner, according to Moody, "shocked" and "disappointed". But apparently once he understood the rationale behind it, he took it sportingly.
In Sunrisers' next game, against Rajasthan Royals, Warner was seen carrying drinks and rallying around the team as the 12th man. But his team, which was no longer his team, lost once again. After the match, coach Trevor Bayliss did say it was "very challenging" in the middle without Warner the batter, but since Covid-19 halted the tournament soon after, it's hard to judge how the move would have panned out.
Since then, a lot has changed. The caravan has moved to the UAE. Several overseas players have pulled out for various reasons. Replacements have been signed. But in those four months, Warner has played no cricket. He skipped the Hundred and then Australia's tours to the West Indies and Bangladesh, which means his last IPL appearance remains his last game in representative cricket.
So, it's difficult to say what Warner's recent form is. However, with Bairstow pulling out, an overseas batting slot has opened up, and while Williamson will continue to the lead side, Warner is likely to return as a player.
But has he come to the terms with playing just as a player? We have seen that a change of captain midway through an IPL season has rarely worked for teams. While Warner did play as a batter in the 2019 season, he knew that beforehand and, more importantly, the reason behind that was completely different.
What's for certain is that Warner will once again be jumping out of his skin. To brush off the rust that has accumulated during the self-enforced hiatus, and to prove that he is still the same batter who made all those runs for Sunrisers season after season.
The IPL will act as a precursor to the T20 World Cup, which, as far as Australia are concerned, will be played on these same pitches. Time spent in the middle during the IPL will also help Warner get acclimatised to the conditions for the global tournament.
Next year is also the mega IPL auction. So from both Warner's and the franchise's point of view, it's important he bats like his old self. Can Moody and Bayliss stroke his ego to make him feel wanted?
At the moment, Sunrisers are hanging by the thinnest of the threads, with two points from seven games. They have been here before, as recent as the last season when they had three wins from nine games. That time a team effort under Warner had buoyed them into the playoffs.
Warner is not the captain anymore, but leadership comes in different forms. He will still be part of the think-tank and will be assisting Williamson in the middle. Moreover, he will be expected to lead a revival.

Hemant Brar is a sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo