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Delhi Capitals: Also-rans to Top Guns

May 12, 2019 10:35 IST

Ricky Ponting + Sourav Ganguly + Shreyas Iyer + Kagiso Rabada + Rishabh Pant + Shikhar Dhawan + consistent team selection.
Dhruv Munjal on how Delhi Capitals achieved a remarkable turnaround in IPL 2019.

IMAGE: Sourav Ganguly hugs Rishabh Pant after his unbeaten half-century steered Delhi Capitals to a six-wicket win over Rajasthan Royals. Photograph: Kind courtesy BCCI

IMAGE: Sourav Ganguly hugs Rishabh Pant after his unbeaten half-century steered Delhi Capitals to a six-wicket win over the Rajasthan Royals. Photograph: Kind courtesy BCCI

Those who had the privilege of watching Mahendra Singh Dhoni play with Trent Boult's mind and make the game bend to his will on May 1 will naturally see no purpose in this. On one of those typically sapping evenings where it seemed that all air had been sucked out of the yellow coliseum that is Chepauk, Dhoni and his Chennai Super Kings left the Delhi Capitals gasping for breath.

Dhoni first engaged Boult in a thrilling game of bat-and-ball poker, almost cajoling the amiable Kiwi pacer into bowling lines and lengths that would have made the producer's task of putting together the post-innings highlights significantly easier.

The suffocation job was made complete by the CSK skipper's speed behind the stumps; Delhi's downfall abetted by blisteringly fast hands that, as someone pointed out, could well be used as the official logo for India's bullet train project.

If this was a vintage Chennai performance -- clinical and inevitable after a few initial hiccups -- this was trademark Delhi, too; not one belonging to the new and improved Capitals, but one firmly in the erstwhile Daredevils mould.

 

This was Old Delhi: much like the place itself, vaguely impressive in its ability to pull in crowds by promising a spectacle, but unable to handle the ensuing chaos and eventually wilting under the pressure of the occasion.

The Capitals, however, have been nothing like their former selves this season. They no longer resemble the team that qualified for the playoffs only thrice in 11 years before embarking on the current campaign. The rechristened franchise made it to the playoffs this season, only losing Qualifier 2 to CSK on My 10 night.

When Ricky Ponting took over as coach before the beginning of last season, the Australian seemed the kind of man who'd be able to dismantle Delhi's old submissive ways and offer a bolder winning approach -- one that would allow them to compete with the rest and no longer remain a laughing stock.

Throughout 2018, though, that turned out to be highly wishful thinking. A visibly spent Gautam Gambhir, who was drafted in as captain in the off-season, was dropped after a string of abject performances with the bat. And soon, in a season of major upheavals, he even lost the captaincy to Shreyas Iyer, and Delhi, not surprisingly, finished dead last.

That is when the owners, the GMR Group and JSW Sport -- the latter picked up a 50% stake in March last year -- decided on an overhaul that included extensive rebranding: a new name, jersey and logo.

JSW's Parth Jindal, who is the Capitals chairman, says the exercise gave birth to a new identity. "I attended a few games at the Kotla last season and the fans were mostly cheering for the opposition. There was no passion, no connect with the home team," he says. "It was clear that Delhi loved its cricket, but not its cricket team. That needed to change."

Jindal, who also owns the Indian Super League club, Bengaluru FC, is known to instill a greater sense of professionalism in his teams -- a rare trait in Indian sport where the owners stay out of matters they know is not their domain.

After coming on board, Jindal made sweeping changes at the management level, letting go of people who had been around since the franchise's inception. "All of them were well-meaning, but they looked jaded - we needed fresh faces."

The rejig has led to a newfound fervour among fans. In an age where most of the fan engagement happens through social media, the Capitals have doubled their Instagram followers in the last year. Official merchandise sales are up 30% and the team is playing in front of packed houses -- most of their home games this season were sold out.

None of that, of course, would have mattered had their cricket this year floundered like seasons past.

Ponting has often stressed on winning 'moments', thriving at crucial junctures that swing T20 games. Just like Kagiso Rabada's immaculate yorker to remove Andre Russell in a wildly fluctuating super over some weeks ago or Rishabh Pant's unlikely composure to finish off the Rajasthan Royals in Jaipur last month.

"You see the difference in how we've handled the crunch situations. That, coming from a team made up of so many young players, has allowed us to win consistently," says Jindal.

Over the years, Delhi has had in its ranks some undoubted superstars: Virender Sehwag, A B de Villiers, Kevin Pietersen, Yuvraj Singh and Glenn Maxwell. But none of these mercurial talents was able to lift a largely disparate group of players.

"I think more than anything else, you look for cohesion and balance in T20 cricket. When you have that, you do well," says Pant.

A lot of that equilibrium has been restored due to the return of Shikhar Dhawan, who was traded for the rapidly upcoming Vijay Shankar, among other players, before the auction in December.

The opener has brought with him a semblance of surety at the top, his style superbly complementing the belligerence of Pant and Prithvi Shaw around him. That is not to suggest that Dhawan is playing second fiddle -- after a minor dressing down from Ponting earlier in the season for consuming too many deliveries, the 33 year old has been firing at a strike rate of 137, his best return in over a decade of Indian Premier League cricket.

"Dhawan was phenomenal business for us. Plus, we also got our hands on an Indian all-rounder in Axar Patel," explains Jindal.

But perhaps the biggest difference has been Rabada, the seemingly mellow but otherwise fiery South African seamer, who is the highest wicket-taker this season. T20 games are increasingly being won on the back of bowlers who can get opposition batsmen out -- and at 25, Rabada has 10 more victims than Jasprit Bumrah, the bowler generally considered to be his sole equal in the world game right now.

Rabada missed the defeat against CSK due to a back niggle, and his absence clearly affected the team's momentum. In fact, mentor Sourav Ganguly recently suggested that the Capitals's surge to the top has been made possible because of consistently picking the same team.

Ganguly's argument has evident merits. The top two teams in 2019, the Super Kings and the Capitals, have had players come good for them because they've been given a longish run in the first XI.

A team like the Royal Challengers Bangalore, on the other hand, has suffered because it has tinkered with its combinations almost every game.

Similarly, the owners deserve credit for sticking with Ponting despite last season's debacle. Now, the improbable combination of Ponting and Ganguly, bitter rivals during their playing days, is steering the Capitals to an improbable shot at the final.

"Ricky is an out-and-out professional and always does his homework," says Jindal, adding that the pair has helped a young captain like Iyer flourish.

Iyer is quite a story himself. One of those rare geeky specimens seemingly capable of beating you at calculus as well as a game of cricket, Iyer hasn't enjoyed the kind of international career he would have liked.

His last game for India came more than a year ago, but the 24 year old has looked at ease leading a team that is made up of a number of more established players.

His batting has shone in parts, but it's his handling of bowlers and managing the field -- the smart dismissal of Russell against Chris Morris in Kolkata being a case in point -- that has been particularly, and unexpectedly, impressive.

Jindal, in fact, spent much of the off-season contemplating whether they should look for a new captain in the auction. But both Ponting and Ganguly backed Iyer, primarily on the evidence of what he had done as skipper of India A.

And final or no final, Iyer has taken the Capitals where no Delhi team has been since 2012.

Dhruv Munjal
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