Every summer, when Premier League football gets underway, there is one certainty. Arsenal FC begin every season with renewed vigour, which dissipates by the end of the year, and at the turn of February-March, they are struggling to stay afloat, hoping to finish fourth again. Arsenal fans, the world over may not agree with this, but regardless of whatever their argument, this yearly routine is a fact.
Now, starting from its very genesis, the Indian Premier League has forever been drawing parallels with the Premier League. Never mind the fixing saga and ensuing ban, Chennai Super Kings were seen as Manchester United, as they won everything they came across – multiple IPL trophies and the now-defunct Champions League T20. ‘Perennial winners’ is the phrase that comes to mind.
Mumbai Indians and Royal Challengers Bangalore are the rich clubs, like Manchester City and Chelsea, throwing out large cheques at player auctions. Kolkata Knight Riders have the most passionate supporters, like Liverpool. Obviously, when it comes to ‘perennial underachievement’ then, Delhi Daredevils find themselves in the same classification as Arsenal.
2012 was the last time this franchise had anything to cheer about. They finished top of the league table, but failed to get going in the play-offs, finishing third. They qualified for the Champions League too, and finished top of their group therein, but failed in the semis again. With the likes of Virender Sehwag, Kevin Pietersen, Mahela Jayawardene, Aaron Finch, David Warner, Ross Taylor, Glenn Maxwell, Andre Russell, Morne Morkel and Umesh Yadav, this season didn’t seem like a total loss though.
Instead, it seemed the dawn of a new hurrah, with these names laying the foundation of a new era of success. It didn’t happen, thanks partly to downturn in the form of some of the oldies, and the rest down to poor decision making on part of the team management as they sold off (or failed to retain the other players) who could have made an impact in the years to come.
Again, it is similar to the Arsenal story. They won the 2003-04 Premier League title, and every time they win a side-trophy like the FA or League Cup, it seems there is dawn of a false new era. It has been eons since Arsenal provided a firm challenge, and no, finishing second to Leicester City doesn’t count (Arsene Wenger should have been fired for losing out last year when City, Chelsea and United were all in doldrums, but that is a different debate).
In that sense, 2012 is Delhi Daredevils’ 2004. Five years is a long, long time in T20 cricket and their current squad isn’t a patch on the one they had all those years ago. Finishing eighth (2013), seventh (2014) and eighth (2015) subsequently, they have become more than under-achievers now. It is a pity there is no relegation system herein, for the Daredevils needed to be put out of their misery. Perhaps, it was the rude jolt their team management needed in order to buck up and make intelligent decisions.
2016 had seemed a little different then. Their squad was heavily inspired by the banned Rajasthan Royals’ outfit, bringing in the Rahul Dravid and Paddy Upton combination to manage, and the much-celebrated Gary Kirsten was let go. The message was clear – the Daredevils had bought into the youth-first policy and heavy invested by putting their eggs in one basket. The result was okay – finishing sixth – but stayed in the hunt for a play-off spot for long, only running out of steam at the very end. Almost like Wenger had been fired from Arsenal, and the new manager had hit the reset button, overseeing a period of transition at the club.
This is where the analogy ends, for Wenger is still there and on the verge of signing a new contract. More pertinently, in the context of this upcoming 2017 IPL season, the Daredevils are in a familiar territory. It is a make or break season for them, for next year all players go back in the auction pool, and the teams will be reshuffled. Maybe there will be an option to retain or buyback by matching the highest bid, it is undecided. Even so, it puts firm onus on this season’s performance, to gauge if this ‘youth’ blueprint even works.
So how are the Daredevils shaping up this season? Two of their important imports are out of this season – Quinton de Kock and JP Duminy. Both players are mercurial in their own definitive way; de Kock can blow hot and cold, it is all a bit moody time for him. If he gets going, like in 2016 (445 runs in 13 matches), he can be a firecracker both in front and behind the stumps.
Duminy is a bigger miss. Zaheer Khan, now 38, will never play every single match of the IPL season. The South African was the obvious choice to step in as skipper in his stead, and his experience in the lower-middle order will be sorely missed.
All is not lost though. For once, the Daredevils’ management spent good money (read judiciously) in the player auctions and their purchase list this year is pretty impressive. Take a look – pacers Pat Cummins and Kagiso Rabada, all-rounders Angelo Mathews and Corey Anderson, plus keeper-batsman Aditya Tare and spinner Murugan Ashwin. They released Nathan Coulter-Nile, Imran Tahir and Pawan Negi, freeing up important spots in their first-choice line-up.
Mathews, who has played for Daredevils before, can step up as captain when Zaheer needs a rest. Additionally, the injuries could be a stroke of inadvertent luck. Players like Carlos Brathwaite, Sam Billings and Anderson can get a long run of games, and these are impact players, in the Chris Morris-mould. Cummins is coming off the back of a fantastic two Tests in Ranchi and Dharamsala, while Rabada is already a rising star in every format of the game.
They can be used alternatively with Zaheer, in bolstering the pace attack, whilst the return of Mohammed Shami is always a good thing. Tare covers up for de Kock adequately, while the evergreen Amit Mishra, Jayant Yadav and Shahbaz Nadeem have the spin department covered between them.
And so, the focus once again will squarely be on the young guns. Shreyas Iyer and Karun Nair have a lot to prove given the lofty standards they have set themselves. Sanju Samson is in search of a fresh start to his promising-but-faltering career graph.
There is Rishabh Pant who has a hard-hitting reputation to live up to. This batting foursome will sew up the top order, along with Tare, and together they boast of enough firepower with the T20 experience of Brathwaite, Anderson and Morris/Billings to boost up the run-rate as needed later.
On paper, much like Arsenal every season, this squad promises a lot once again. Delivering on the field of play, however, is a different prospect altogether.
DD squad: Zaheer Khan (c), Shashank Singh, Mohammed Shami, Shahbaz Nadeem, Jayant Yadav, Amit Mishra, Sreyas Iyer, Sam Billings, Sanju Samson, Chris Morris, Carlos Brathwaite, Angelo Mathews, Corey Anderson, Kagiso Rabada, Pat Cummins, Ankit Bawne, Aditya Tare, Murugan Ashwin, Navdeep Saini, Karun Nair, Rishabh Pant, CV Milind, Syed Ahmed, Pratyush Singh.