Autumn IPL adds spring to India ahead for Australia

Cricket was back after months in limbo as the Indian Premier League got rolling in the United Arab Emirates in mid-September. All eyes were on how the Indian players, stuck at home for seven months without a game, unlike many of their key foreign teammates who had turned out for their country, would shape up.

Jasprit Bumrah is India’s most precious asset, and millions of eyes were glued on how their bowling leader for all formats and conditions would fare; the focus was perhaps more on him than on Virat Kohli.

Back from a back injury, he had warmed-up in the New Year with T20s in New Zealand, but didn’t take a wicket in the three ODIs that followed. Five wickets in the Christchurch Test, the last game for India, and then Bumrah was under lockdown.

Mumbai Indians’ opening game, a five-wicket loss to Chennai Super Kings, saw Bumrah take 1/43. By game two, the rust was off; mid-innings strikes to remove Andre Russell and Eoin Morgan set up victory over KKR. Still, it was in the third game, a defeat to RCB after scores were tied, that he felt all those little parts in his unique bowling mechanism click into place. Then on there was no respite for batsmen as MI marched to the title.

After his 27 wickets, the second highest tally in IPL 2020 with an economy rate of 6.73 had eased MI to the title, Bumrah went back to that RCB Super Over on September 28.

“From the first game I felt my rhythm was up. The last piece of the puzzle was missing,” he said after the final. “But when I bowled the Super Over, I had to execute against Virat and AB and since then it clicked into place.” What was left unsaid was MI made only seven, and Bumrah defended that total till the last delivery of his Super Over.

Usually played at the peak of the Indian summer, every IPL season raises concerns about too much cricket. The autumn version, moved to the UAE due to the pandemic, led to a very different perspective.

In a season of little or no cricket, Indian cricketers used the IPL to find rhythm and confidence as they landed in Australia focused on the limited-overs phase, starting with the ODIs in Sydney on November 27.

The pace unit of Mohammed Shami and Navdeep Saini apart, the team will be boosted by a rare left-arm option for T20s in T Natarajan, one of this season’s emerging stars. The 29-year-old stood out with unerring yorkers in the death overs for Sunrisers Hyderabad, stepping into the big shoes of Bhuvneshwar Kumar, who got injured, to help SRH reach the playoffs.

Natarajan’s inclusion in the T20 squad caps a rollercoaster ride. Picked for R3 crore by KXIP, backed by Virender Sehwag in 2017, he played six games and took two wickets before injuries sidelined him. Picked for only R40 lakh by SRH in the 2018 auction, he didn’t get a game for the next two seasons, until returning with a boost from his performances for Tamil Nadu in the run up to the Mushtaq Ali Trophy final. The IPL could not have come at a better time for Natarajan. But he is an exception in the touring squad; selectors have stuck with continuity, which to an extent explains why the other shining performer of this IPL–Ishan Kishan, Suryakumar Yadav, Devdutt Padikkal, Ruturaj Gaikwad, and even R Ashwin, outstanding for Delhi Capitals–not making it.

Batting unit

Indian batsmen know the Aussie fast bowlers will be thirsting to confront them in white-ball cricket before the Tests, after Mitchell Starc and company were heavily criticised in India’s historic first Test series win in 2018. The good news is that the entire white-ball batting unit was in great knock at the IPL.

Apart from KL Rahul’s sensational form as IPL top-scorer with 670 runs (one century, five fifties), there was Shikhar Dhawan (618, 2 hundreds, four 50s), Mayank Agarwal (424; 1×100, 2×50), Manish Pandey (425), Shreyas Iyer (519; 3x50s), Shubman Gill (440) and power-hitter Sanju Samson (375), all getting plenty of runs.

Dhawan seemed to be fading away from white ball cricket for India, but has used the IPL to demonstrate his newfound robust approach, in batting and fitness.

Chahal’s positive spin

The spinners thrived too, despite not getting to use the slower Indian pitches.

Yuzvendra Chahal’s craft and value to RCB was clear as he thrived on the UAE pitches that afforded a shade more bounce than Indian ones. Emerging the most successful spinner of IPL 2020 (21 wickets, one more than fellow leggie Rashid Khan) was the perfect build-up for the larger Australia grounds.

Ravindra Jadeja stood out in all three departments – he was again the best fielder in an ageing CSK. There may be some question marks on chinaman bowler Kuldeep Yadav, who played only five games for KKR, taking one wicket. Young off-spinner Washington Sundar’s (RCB) power play bowling though will be useful for T20s.

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