IPL Draft: Why Pune’s Strategy Will Work

The majority of the analysis of the IPL Draft that took place earlier this week would lead readers to suggest that the newly-formed Rajkot franchise have done better than Pune with their first five picks.

The suggestion is that with three all-rounders in West Indies’ Dwayne Bravo – last season’s leading wicket-taker in the IPL – James Faulkner of Australia and Indian spinner Ravindra Jadeja, both their side and their bowling attack already seem to have balance. In fact, as at is probable all three of those men will play every game in which they are fit, if Rajkot can recruit three more front-line bowlers in February’s auction in Bengaluru, their side will already have plenty of bowling options.

Furthermore, in Suresh Raina and Brendon McCullum, they already have two top-order batsmen who will play aggressive cricket and look to get the franchise off to a flying start in the initial six-over powerplay; their careers in T20 cricket have both shown that.

Meanwhile, Pune’s trio of Ajinkya Rahane, Steve Smith and Faf du Plessis are all top-order batsmen who score at a slightly slower pace than their Rajkot counterparts, and focus on finding gaps in the field rather than power hitting. Their number one pick in the draft, MS Dhoni, has a great deal of experience captaining the now-defunct Chennai Super Kings, but his recent struggles in ODI cricket may suggest to some that his powers are somewhat on the slide. Finally, in only picking one specialist bowler in R Ashwin, Pune lack a seamer who will bowl with pace at the start of an innings, which could be seen as a cause for concern.

However, a brief glance at the history books undermines this analysis, and suggests that it is, in fact, Pune that have had a successful draft.

In the past three seasons of the IPL, the top-five runs scorers each year have tended not to be top-order ‘power-hitters’ in the mould of McCullum, but steadier accumulators like Rahane, Smith and du Plessis. In those past three seasons, only five of the top fifteen season records have seen a batsman score at a strike-rate in advance of 150; Chris Gayle and Raina (by 0.16 of a run per hundred balls) managed the feat in 2013; Glenn Maxwell did in 2014; and David Warner and AB de Villiers did in 2015.

Interestingly, none of those five players won the IPL title in the stipulated seasons. In fact, the winners of each of the past three IPLs have had a player with a strike-rate below 140 as their leading run-getter, with Rohit Sharma’s 538 runs coming at a rate of 131.54 in 2013 for the Mumbai Indians, Kolkata Knight Riders benefitting from Robin Uthappa’s 660 runs at 137.78 in 2014 and the 2015 winners, Mumbai again, seeing Lendl Simmons score his 540 at an almost pedestrian 122.44 runs per hundred balls faced.

There is an old adage in English football that it is strikers who win games for a team, but defenders that win them titles; a re-wording of that regarding power-hitters and accumulators may hold true in the IPL.

Those who think Rajkot have been successful will also point to recent IPL history in saying that in Suresh Raina and Dwayne Bravo, they have both the leading run-scorer and leading wicket-taker in the history of the competition.

Whilst true, this stat has less meaning that you might think.

It is correct that Raina’s IPL career paints a picture of immense consistency, but his 2015 form suggests that his best years may be behind him. For the first time in many years, he failed to pass 400 runs in the tournament, and averaged just 24.93.

Furthermore, a look at some of the names to have featured in the top five wicket-takers in recent IPL seasons will tell you that batsmen ought to have been prioritised at the draft. Sreenath Aravind (21 wickets for RCB in 2011), Vinay Kumar (23 for RCB in 2013), Mohit Sharma (23 for CSK in 2014), Sandeep Sharma (18 for KXIP in 2014) and Yuzvendra Chahal (23 for RCB in 2015) are all, without wishing to belittle them too much, average bowlers who have enjoyed great success in the tournament.

This shows that the theory suggesting that a strong bowling attack is a prerequisite for IPL success is fundamentally flawed; the most important factor is that teams have a steady-scorer at the top of the order who is a good bet to score over 400 runs in a season. In Rahane, Smith, and the admittedly out-of-form du Plessis, Pune have three players who you would back to do exactly that, and the additions of Dhoni, a fans’ favourite, crowd drawer and astute tactician, and Ashwin, whose IPL record is excellent, show a clear strategy.

Meanwhile, Rajkot drafting Raina – who appears past his best – as well as McCullum, and three bowling all-rounders suggests a possibility that resources have been wasted.

Both teams should have used the draft as an opportunity to lay down the foundations of a title-winning side. Both signed a fans’ favourite, but Pune’s realisation that accumulators win tournaments should serve them in better stead than the aggressively-styled players for whom Rajkot have opted.

The auction will allow Pune to add in some pinch-hitters and lower-middle order players, as well as finding a solid bowling attack, but Rajkot will have to look for top-order batsmen that will stand them in good stead as well as more specialist bowlers and, in the probability that McCullum will not take up the gloves, a wicket-keeper.

Add into this that Pune have an extra spot in their playing XI free for an overseas player than Rajkot, on the assumption that all the drafted players will be automatic picks come the 2016 season, and it is clear that the New Rising-owned franchise have had a better draft than their Intex-managed counterparts.