Sporting pitches, surprise omissions, and Chennai Super Kings' refreshing turnaround

The season may have been abruptly suspended, but there were several takeaways

Chennai Super Kings were flying high at the midway point of IPL 2021  •  BCCI/IPL

Chennai Super Kings were flying high at the midway point of IPL 2021  •  BCCI/IPL

It might have been suspended abruptly, but IPL 2021 showed several trends and talking points. ESPNcricinfo looks at some of the significant learnings.
Dhawan and Shaw: IPL's best openers sitting out of India's T20 XI
In the home T20I series against England, which preceded the IPL, India captain Virat Kohli lined up alongside KL Rahul as a contender to open with Rohit Sharma. While Rahul continued to prosper in the IPL, Kohli and Sharma, though consistent, scored at a quieter strike rate. At the halfway stage of the IPL, the trio's first 10-ball strike rate was: Kohli (126), Rahul (100) and Sharma (89). But Sharma had played five out of seven matches on the challenging pitches in Chennai.
In contrast, the Delhi Capitals' pair of Prithvi Shaw and Shikhar Dhawan took T20 opening to a new level with their intent and built a strong case for their selection. Shaw's 10-ball strike rate was 178.57 and he scored a boundary every three deliveries while Dhawan scored at a strike rate of 116. The right-left combination scored at a healthy 8.87 runs per over in the powerplay, dominating virtually all the IPL bowling attacks. They might not have been part of Indian T20I combination previously, but if Dhawan and Shaw end up continuing in the same dominant vein once the IPL resumes, they might end up giving a few headaches to the selectors and team management.
For once, big buys turns up with performances
Earning huge salaries through the auction could result in a lot of pressure in the IPL. Not often do we see such players living up to the price tag. There have been instances in which a player has not played despite being sold for a large sum. However, early indicators this season showed that the big money players performed well. Chris Morris, who fetched the most money for any player at an IPL auction, won matches with the bat and ball for the Rajasthan Royals while serial IPL millionaire Glenn Maxwell neatly settled into a middle-order role at the Royal Challangers Bangalore. Maxwell played in tough conditions, helping his team get over the line on couple of occasions. Kyle Jamieson, relatively unknown on the T20 circuit, came into the league with a lot of questions, but displayed his potential with some tight bowling in difficult conditions and also showed he could stand his ground with the bat.
CSK press the refresh button
In 2020 they surprised with their worst-ever IPL season. Barely six months later, MS Dhoni's team surprised by making a remarkable turnaround. The Chennai Super Kings were leading the points table at the halfway stage. That turnaround happened because the team management had addressed their weaknesses promptly. In 2020, the Super Kings were the worst batting unit in the powerplay, but this time around the Super Kings were probably the only team to go hard through the 20 overs without worrying about the wickets.
That intent was brandished by Faf du Plessis at the top and the fireworks of Moeen Ali at No. 3. No team hit more sixes (62) or scored at a faster rate (9.57) than the Super Kings. Dhoni, the captain, realised that the other batters were striking the ball much better than him and he duly pushed himself down the order. In seven matches, Dhoni played just 30 deliveries, scoring 37 runs and batted only if required. That allowed Ravindra Jadeja more batting time and he proved to be a matchwinner. Flexibility and execution were the hallmarks of the Super Kings' campaign.
de Villiers gives South Africa hope
ESPNcricinfo is running the Greatest IPL Performance series currently. In the next edition, AB de Villiers' undefeated 76 against the Knight Riders will easily be one of the nominations. It might be second to Kieron Pollard's majestic assault against the Super Kings, but de Villiers once again proved why experience matters. And why Graeme Smith and Mark Boucher, the top brass at South Africa, want him back in the T20 set-up.
de Villiers' role at the Royal Challengers was to come in around the 12th over and close the innings. He did so on three occasions on tough pitches and conditions. Pitches do not matter for de Villiers and if he decides to make a comeback, he will be a force to reckon with for South Africa who are currently struggling to win in the shortest format.
The uncapped Indian surprises
Not many might have expected the Royal Challengers' fast bowler Harshal Patel to hold the purple cap and the Capitals' quick Avesh Khan to be second among the highest wicket-takers at the halfway state of this IPL. Yet, both men made headlines by bowling the difficult overs. With an ability to bowl in the high 140s at will, Avesh was both accurate and consistent while being one of the best yorker specialists. His continued success not only allowed the Capitals to leave out their 2020 IPL hero Anrich Nortje, but also find space in the top order for Steven Smith.
Patel, who was traded by the Capitals to the Royal Challengers, built his success using smart variations in pace which batters found difficult to read in Chennai. In addition, the pair of Devdutt Padikkal and Ruturaj Gaikwad carried forward their good form from the 2020 season while first-timers Harpreet Brar (Punjab Kings) and Chetan Sakariya (Rajasthan Royals) showed heart and courage to not get daunted by the occasion, making an impact more than once.
How the mighty have fallen
Did we ever imagine that franchises would drop players of the caliber of David Warner and Nicholas Pooran? Or Ishan Kishan after his success last IPL, which earned him an India T20I call-up? Despite being among the runs, Warner was dropped by the Sunrisers Hyderabad, both as captain and batter, for the sake of finding the right team balance. For some years now Sunil Narine has been dealt with easily by opposition batters and this season was no different as he failed to make an impact. Pooran, one of the smoothest power hitters in T20 cricket, had four ducks this season. Kishan played just two matches, but that was enough for the Mumbai Indians to change their combination and promote Krunal Pandya to No. 4 for the first time. The suspension of the IPL meant it is hard to comprehend the exact impact of such hard calls.
Contrasting pitches make good viewing
Netural venues, contrasting pitches and the difference in boundary sizes made for interesting viewing. While Chennai and Ahmedabad aided spinners and kept the batters in check, Mumbai and Delhi were a nightmare for bowlers, mainly due to the dew setting in early. Batters scored at an average strike rate of 125 in Chennai and Ahmedabad, and 145 in Mumbai and Delhi. With no home advantage, teams such as the Mumbai Indians had to find new strategies to combat the slower pitches. Delhi and Mumbai saw teams scoring in excess of 200 consistently, making it difficult for the bowlers. The toss did not make as much of an impact as previous seasons.
The curious case of Kuldeep
For the second season now, Kuldeep Yadav struggled to find a spot in the Kolkata Knight Riders' bowling attack owing to the success of Varun Chakravarthy. In 2017, Yadav and Yuzvendra Chahal were meant to be the future. However, even Chahal has been struggling to make an impact over the last one year, both with India as well as the Royal Challengers. Since January 2020, Chahal's economy rate of 9.27 is the highest among all spinners (minimum 100 balls bowled) in T20Is. The break could be a welcome opportunity for the pair to work out an approach to help them bounce back strongly.

Gaurav Sundararaman is a senior stats analyst at ESPNcricinfo