Lions falter at the penultimate step after commendable showing on IPL debut

It has been a season to remember for the ebullient owner, Keshav Bansal, and his Lions. Not since Rajasthan Royals’ astonishing run to the title has a team enjoyed a more fruitful first season of Indian Premier League existence. That the Royals did it during the inaugural edition of the IPL, with all franchises starting on equal footing, lends more credence to Gujarat Lions’ commendable season. Heading into IPL 2016, five teams had an eight-year headstart on the Lions in terms of sheer experience dealing with the twists and turns of the tournament, yet four of them finished below the Rajkot-based franchise in the final standings. The management admitted that there were logistical issues running the first-time franchise, but the collective experience of the squad helped the team pull through in difficult times.
The league’s entry into Gujarat was lapped up by the cricket-loving public of the state, who were witness to an excellent start to the season by the local team. Having deputised for MS Dhoni in Chennai Super Kings, Suresh Raina was proactive with his selection and on-field decision making as the Lions blew away opponents courtesy a top-order that was the envy of all other sides, at least until the second half of the season when Royal Challengers Bangalore’s ‘Big-3′ stepped up. A season double over fellow new entrants, Rising Pune Supergiants at the end of April, gave the team six wins from the first seven games – a league record. Despite a run of three successive defeats in the middle phase of the tournament, Lions ensured that they didn’t fall by the wayside, recording crucial wins over perennial heavyweights Kolkata Knight Riders and Mumbai Indians in their second home at Kanpur, to qualify as the league phase toppers. However, two successive batting chokes in the playoffs ended a chance to make the final and cap off a truly remarkable first season.
Lions’ success, built on a healthy balance between bat and ball, had much to do with some excellent decision making from the owners during the player draft. In Suresh Raina, they got a captain and player of unparalleled IPL pedigree. In Brendon McCullum, they had an explosive opener. Home-town hero Ravindra Jadeja gave the a spinning option, besides providing a connect to the Rajkot faithful while Dwayne Bravo and James Faulkner brought to the table, their multi-dimensional abilities.
The Lions were endowed with opening batsmen of international repute. After Aaron Finch, recipient of the Man of the Match award in each of the side’s opening three matches, missed games in the middle of the season due to a hamstring injury, the franchise could throw up the successful Brendon McCullum-Dwayne Smith combine. Unsurprisingly, the team had top-four powerplay scores in the tournament – 72, 72, 71 and 70 against Supergiants, Royal Challengers, Delhi Daredevils and Mumbai Indians respectively. However, Finch’s return posed batting-order dilemmas for Raina & Co. as the side alternated between moving the Australian and Smith to the middle-order before inexplicably moving Ekalavya Dwivedi to open the batting in the knockout game against Sunrisers.
Despite signing on two death-overs specialists in Dwayne Bravo and James Faulkner, Lions finished the league stages with the worst record in the final five overs of the innings – having conceded the runs at an economy of 11.07. Their deplorable death bowling was directly responsible for an IPL-record 144-run thrashing to the Royal Challengers, one that sent their net run-rate spiraling and threatened to send them tumbling out of playoffs recognition. That Raina is an IPL behemoth is well known. Few players across the nine-year history of the tournament have been as consistent or as impactful as the former Chennai Super King batsman. However, for a second season in a row, the left-hander endured a patchy run of form, failing once again to aggregate 400 runs in the season, albeit by a solitary run. The first half of the season saw Raina falling uncharacteristically in the 20s after a brisk start. He did score two valuable fifties in the last two league games to assure Lions’ safe passage into the playoffs but scored only one run each in the the team’s twin defeats in the qualifiers, a far cry from the five fifties he scored for his former franchise in 11 knockout games. Raina’s nine-year streak without missing an IPL game also came to an end when he jetted off to Netherlands for the birth of his first child.
Aaron Finch – The Victorian served a timely reminder to the Australian think-tank as to why he is so highly rated in the shortest format of the game. The burly opener played only two games in Australia’s foiled bid to capture a maiden ICC World Twenty20 title but turned in highly impressive performances in Lions’ fast start to IPL 2016.

Recommended For You

About the Author: editor