At exactly the midway point of the league phase of Season 16 of the Indian Premier League (IPL), there’s a clear alignment of powers, with three teams firmly rooted to the bottom on four points and separated only by net run rate.
Chennai Super Kings (CSK) are the unexpected table toppers after Match 35 of the 70-match preliminary phase, with each of the ten teams playing a symmetrical seven games apiece. With the top four making it to the playoffs, the stage is set beautifully for a scrap over the next four weeks to break the logjam at the top, especially with holders Gujarat Titans drawing abreast of CSK on points but occupying second spot on net run rate.
The most patronised IPL for a few years now – the pandemic had prevented the tournament from following its home-and-away structure for the last three seasons – has been typically dramatic. The cricket has not necessarily been of the highest quality but riveting enough to bring the fans in their thousands to all stadiums to create a buzz, energy and electricity conspicuous by its absence since 2019.
CSK – the sentimental favourites
The general consensus that this could be Mahendra Singh Dhoni’s last season in competitive cricket has installed CSK as the sentimental favourites, not for the first time, and Captain Cool has run a shrewd, rambunctious campaign, once again reinforcing his exceptional man-management credentials.
To many, CSK has no business being perched at the top of the table, not after the numerous trysts with injuries to their pacers that has stretched their resources to the thin. Yet, Dhoni has eked out competent displays from his less experienced pacers, among them Akash Singh and Tushar Deshpande, while allowing his batting group to express itself with freedom and fearlessness.
Also read: IPL 2023 Points Table at halfway stage of league; CSK on top after 35 games
The biggest beneficiaries of Dhoni’s vote of confidence are the Mumbai duo – Ajinkya Rahane and Shivam Dube. Rahane’s cricketing career had seemingly hit a roadblock since his omission from the Test set-up in January 2022 and his sporadic forays into the IPL theatre in the last few years. Dhoni threw him a lifeline by not just pressing for his purchase at the auction but also entrusting him with the No 3 position, where Rahane has enthralled and entertained with a brand of batsmanship seldom associated with him.
His extraordinary stroke-play and consistency have facilitated a return to the Test arena for the 34-year-old, who was on Tuesday (April 25) named in the Indian 15 for the World Test Championship final against Australia at The Oval in June. Having backed his inclusion in the larger squad, Rohit Sharma and Rahul Dravid will be hard pressed to overlook the former long-term Test vice-captain when it comes to picking the XI on June 7.
Dube was touted as the seam-bowling all-rounder India was desperately looking for but seemed to have lost his way after a brief stint with the national team. Encouraged by Dhoni to play his natural attacking game, the left-hander is striking at 157.26 and, along with Rahane, Ruturaj Gaikwad and Devon Conway, is responsible for CSK’s top-of-the-table status.
Fate of other IPL contenders
The others have blown hot and cold, not able to string together a series of victories that will help them pull away from the chasing pack. Rajasthan Royals, last year’s finalists, seemed the most balanced of the franchises coming into the tournament and began the season brightly, but have hit a bit of a slump, coinciding with their captain Sanju Samson going off the boil.
Gujarat, the defending champions, have manfully attempted to come to terms with the five last-over sixes from Rinku Singh that overturned a lost cause for KKR into a sensational victory, and with the loss in the very first match of Kane Williamson, the outstanding New Zealander who injured his knee. They don’t wear the formidable look while batting first that they do when they chase, which has already stymied their charge, though it’s only a matter of time before Rashid Khan, the leg-spinning genius from Afghanistan, is back at his wicket-taking best.
Also read: IPL 2023 Purple Cap Standings at the halfway stage of league
The Impact Player rule
The Impact Player rule, introduced with much fanfare this year, has come in handy for Royal Challengers Bangalore (RCB), who otherwise would have been without their skipper Faf du Plessis for their two previous games. Du Plessis is nursing a rib injury that severely restricts his movement on the field, but he and Harshal Patel (with a sore finger) swapped batting and bowling duties respectively in their last two games against Punjab Kings and Rajasthan Royals.
RCB haven’t made the most of six home games in 25 days – they have won three and lost two of the five thus far at the M Chinnaswamy Stadium ahead of Wednesday’s fixture against KKR – and it’s not unlikely their batting overdependence on du Plessis, Virat Kohli and Glenn Maxwell will not come back to haunt them at some stage going forward.
The rule has also allowed some of the Indian bowlers flirting with the ‘veteran’ category – Amit Mishra and Piyush Chawla among them – to bowl their four overs and make way for a specialist batsman. In its current avatar, the introduction of the Impact Player is stymying the development of Indian all-rounders in particular, though it’s practically a given that there will be a tweak or two to the rule as everyone is wiser for the experience.
While, expectedly, those batting in the top three for different franchises have done the bulk of the scoring in the competition, there is no discernible trend when it comes to wicket-taking. Mohammed Siraj, RCB’s standout performer, has been practically unplayable with the new ball, invariably striking in the Powerplay and making the white ball talk. But among the top-ten wicket-takers are also a death-overs yorker specialist (Arshdeep Singh), wrist-spinners galore (Rashid, Yuzvendra Chahal, Varun Chakravarthy), a tearaway quick (Mark Wood) and Ravindra Jadeja, who has kept the flag of the finger-spinners flying high.
It’s an eclectic mix that points to the versatility of the bowling group and their unwillingness to merely serve as cannon fodder for batsmen who leave fear and indecision back in the dugout.
Also read: IPL 2023 Orange Cap Standings at the halfway stage of league
As the tournament enters its second half, the only guarantee is that the yellow fever that has gripped the competition will not abate. Dhoni’s presence in potentially his farewell season has negated any home advantage for those hosting CSK, and that’s a trend that will continue as everyone and their cousin is desperate for one final ‘live’ look at the legend.
To his credit, despite hobbling on a sore knee and closing in on his 42nd birthday, Dhoni has turned the clock back in stunning style, unleashing some monster sixes and reiterating that a vibrant spirit can sometimes make up for and prevail over a protesting body.