How Punjab Kings lost the tactical battle against Mumbai Indians

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Chris Gayle‘s first match in last year’s IPL was the tournament’s 31st, against Royal Challengers Bangalore. Kings XI Punjab, as they were known last year, were struggling, having won just one match till then. Gayle got off to a slow start against his former team, who showed their knowledge of Gayle’s game by denying him legspin. The offspin of Washington Sundar and high pace of Navdeep Saini kept him quiet at a time when Yuzvendra Chahal bowls his legspin.

Fifteen balls into his innings, though, Gayle unloaded on Sundar. Not only did he take down the later half of the middle overs, RCB kept pushing the return of Chahal until they were left with no choice to bowl him… in the last over. This was just Kings XI’s second win in eight matches, but their threat was real: they had two middle-overs disruptors in Gayle and Nicholas Pooran, who had the potential to force sides to bowl their best bowlers in the middle overs and become vulnerable at the death.

Kings XI’s next match was against Mumbai Indians, who, for the first time since 2012, opened with spin against Kings XI. It was Krunal Pandya they wanted to hide from Gayle and Pooran. As soon as a wicket fell, bringing Gayle in, Krunal was taken out and brought back only when both Gayle and Pooran had been dismissed.

In all three matches between these sides since then, Mumbai have opened the innings with Krunal. In the first, Krunal got away with two overs for 12, in the second Punjab Kings had a paltry total to chase and did so comfortably, and the third was tonight.

By now you expect the opposition to know the plan, and expect them to disrupt it by asking their openers to go after such a bowler, but Punjab Kings were dealt a blow just before the match with Mayank Agarwal being ruled out with a stiff neck. It can be argued that Kings should been proactive and opened with Gayle, but they didn’t.

KL Rahul and Mandeep Singh, the openers, were then guilty of letting Krunal bowl without any threat. According to Cricinfo logs, Krunal was attacked only once in his three overs. A free hit was hit along the ground to extra cover. On pitches that it has been difficult to accelerate in the middle overs and at the death, teams have been going hard at the top anyway. To not do so when you have a clear match-up to disrupt was doubly surprising.

As a result, Krunal bowled three cheap, practically uncontested overs for just 16 runs, but in the third over, he took a wicket, which brought in Gayle.

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Long before it became fashionable to call up an achiever on loudspeaker and record an awkward congratulatory call to be released in media later, Mumbai’s owner Neeta Ambani was on loudspeaker minutes after Kieron Pollard‘s 150th match for her franchise. She joked that Pollard had celebrated it with three great overs. Pollard replied, “Yeah, DJ [CKM Dhananjai, the team analyst] finally gave Rohit and the management my bowling stats.”

Everybody laughed at the time, but this was an ongoing story. Pollard doesn’t get to bowl at Mumbai as much as he would like to or as much as he used to under other captains. There have been five Mumbai captains in Pollard’s time there – including himself in six games – and only under Rohit Sharma has he bowled fewer than one over per match.

Rarely he might bowl, but ever since Gayle and Pollard have come together, Pollard has bowled in all three matches against Punjab Kings. On each occasion it has been to deny Gayle an over of spin without actually going to bowlers you’d rather bowl at the death.

Those before might not have been, but Gayle was proactive and tried to not let Pollard bowl. Gayle doesn’t hit this early, but he knew what was going on and that Mumbai’s plans needed to be disrupted. Pollard, though, managed to get the better of him as he holed out to long-on. The Rahul wicket later in the over was a bonus, but Mumbai were now just Pooran’s wicket away from bowling spin without bother.

So they went to Jasprit Bumrah in the eight over, and he delivered the wicket of Pooran. This was the perfect start for Mumbai: not only had they taken four wickets in the first eight, they had also got four overs of the fifth bowler out of the way. Even if Bumrah hadn’t got Pooran out as early as he did, Mumbai had the luxury of bowling their main bowlers at him. And they didn’t go back to Pollard for the rest of the night. This was Mumbai at their clinical best.

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You can plan everything down to last detail, but the plans only look good if the players go out and execute them. Bumrah nailed the dipping yorker to get rid of Pooran. Krunal didn’t bowl a single half-volley or short ball in his three overs bowled inside the Powerplay. Pollard, called upon so infrequently, was spot on with his bowling plans: slow, into the pitch, no room.

After all, these tactics are based on data built and provided by their execution in the first place.



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