The Kings XI Punjab's IPL campaign is well and truly back on track. And despite their nerve-wrangling win over the Mumbai Indians after a double-Super Over having ended late on Sunday, they must be eager to front up against table-toppers the Delhi Capitals, themselves victors in a dramatic finish over the weekend against the Chennai Super Kings.
The Kings XI's three wins from nine games is nowhere near an accurate description of how they have played at times. They controlled large parts of a few matches they contrived to lose - their season-opener against the Capitals, which they lost in a Super Over, is one of three games they would look back at as ones they ought to have won. And with the mid-table traffic not far behind the top-four places, all it will take is a couple of wins from here to get into serious playoffs contention. Chris Gayle's inclusion in the line-up has added a delicate but vital balance, freeing up captain KL Rahul to bat more freely in the powerplay to cash in on his run of fantastic form.
But the Capitals, understandably, provide a substantial hurdle. With Rishabh Pant having started training, his return from a hamstring injury must be around the corner, but even without him, the batting has been helmed excellently by Shikhar Dhawan, fresh off his maiden IPL century. Their chief driving force is arguably the league's most balanced bowling attack, with spinners R Ashwin and Axar Patel perfectly complementing the heavy-metal pace duo of Kagiso Rabada and Anrich Nortje, with Tushar Deshpande settling in nicely.
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Is he a ruthless run-gatherer whose apparent lack of intent can sometimes end up hurting his team as they enter the last bit of their innings? Or is he a cricketer at the top of his game, who has just not had the support that would help mark this out as one of T20 cricket's great runs of form? The truth is probably somewhere in between, but there's no denying that Rahul is batting at a level different from everybody else this IPL. His 525 runs have come at an average of 75, a strike rate of 136, and after nine games in any IPL, only Virat Kohli (561) had more back in 2016. With Gayle and Nicholas Pooran slotting in after the openers, Rahul's strike rate went up to over 170 against the Mumbai Indians, up from 117 till that match, indicating that the best of Rahul might be yet to come.
The Capitals have signed legspinner Praveen Dubey as replacement for the injured Amit Mishra, but it is unlikely he will break into the XI with Ashwin and Patel in the kind of form they are in. Between the two of them, they also have some impressive match-ups with key batsmen in the Kings XI lineup - Gayle has fallen four times to Ashwin and scores at a strike rate of just 82.28 against him, while Ashwin has also dismissed Mayank Agarwal four times, with the batsman averaging just 10 against him. Rahul averages just 9 against Patel, striking at 75, while Agarwal strikes at 71.43. All of it makes for a very intriguing middle-overs battle, should the Kings XI top order survive the new ball burst.
What's at stake
Delhi Capitals Played 9: Won 7, Lost 2
They are sitting pretty at the top of the table and if they win today against the Kings XI, they will move to 16 points, establishing a four-point lead over the second-placed Mumbai Indians. A win will not guarantee the Capitals a spot in the playoffs, but it will put them in an excellent position to make the final four.
Remaining Fixtures: KKR, SRH, MI and RCB
Kings XI Punjab Played 9: Won 3, Lost 6
The Kings XI have won back-to-back games, with the form of KL Rahul and Chris Gayle reviving their campaign. Tuesday's game against the Capitals is very important for them. If they win, they will go to fifth place with eight points and will be just one win away from the top four. The Kings XI will have also finished two games each against the stronger oppositions in the Mumbai Indians, Royal Challengers Bangalore and Delhi Capitals. This puts them in a good position to make a final dash against the teams that are not performing at their best this IPL. If the Kings XI lose today, they are not out of the tournament yet, but it means they can get to a maximum of 14 points and will have to rely on other results going their way to qualify for the playoffs.
Remaining Fixtures: SRH, KKR, RR and CSK
If there have been some incredible finishes this season, the mould was set in place when these teams met in the season's second game at the same venue. The Capitals slumped to 13 for 3, but then were hauled to 157 for 8, principally on the back of Marcus Stoinis' 53 off 21. Ashwin rocked the Kings XI chase with two wickets in one over, but then Agarwal (89) brought the scores level off Stoinis' last over, with three balls to spare. A dot ball, and two wickets later, we had the season's first Super Over, where Rabada went 2, W, W and the Capitals pulled off a win that had looked improbable just 15 minutes earlier.
Delhi Capitals: 1 Prithvi Shaw, 2 Shikhar Dhawan, 3 Ajinkya Rahane, 4 Shreyas Iyer (capt), 5 Marcus Stoinis, 6 Alex Carey (wk), 7 Axar Patel, 8 R Ashwin, 9 Tushar Deshpande, 10 Kagiso Rabada 11 Anrich Nortje
Kings XI Punjab: 1 KL Rahul (capt, wk), 2 Mayank Agarwal, 3 Chris Gayle, 4 Nicholas Pooran, 5 Glenn Maxwell, 6 Deepak Hooda, 7 Chris Jordan, 8 M Ashwin, 9 Ravi Bishnoi, 10 Mohammed Shami, 11 Arshdeep Singh
Since the Capitals have two fingerspinners with great records against their top-order batsmen, the Kings XI could consider splitting up the successful Rahul-Agarwal partnership by having Gayle open with Rahul. This would also leave them with the option of keeping either Agarwal or Pooran as floaters to maintain the right-left combination at the crease. Gayle might also relish taking on the pace on offer from Rabada and Nortje more than walking in during the middle overs. A lot could depend on the conditions as well as whether the Kings XI bat first or chase.
While the Capitals have had a lot of individual contributions coming in for them, Prithvi Shaw's rut in the last three matches has been noticeable. He has scored just four runs from six balls, and fallen in the opening over to Trent Boult, Jofra Archer and Deepak Chahar. In Arshdeep Singh and Mohammed Shami, the Kings XI have new-ball operators who get swing early on, and they will look to feed on his tentativeness early. The Capitals might consider having Shaw swap positions with Ajinkya Rahane, and if Pant reports fit, the decision could become an easier one. It would also enable the Capitals to bring back Shimron Hetmyer, and allow captain Shreyas Iyer to bat at his favoured No. 3.
Stats that matter
The Delhi franchise has been Rahul's least favourite opponents in terms of sheer numbers - he averages 24.5 in eight innings against them and it's the only team against which his average dips below 37. However, in 2018, he did score a 14-ball 50 to set up a successful run chase.
The Capitals have had seven different players winning the Player of the Match awards for their seven victories - Stoinis, Shaw, Iyer, Patel, Ashwin, Nortje and Dhawan. Rabada, Purple Cap-holder with 19 wickets, is yet to win one.
In 16 matches in Dubai at this IPL, pace has provided more wickets on an average, but spin has kept the opposition in check better. While the fast men have picked up 113 wickets at an economy of 8.6, the corresponding figures for spin are 61 and 7.7.
Glenn Maxwell needs another 45 runs to bring up 1500 IPL runs.
Dhawan needs 62 runs to bring up 5000 runs in the IPL.
This will be Ajinkya Rahane's 200th T20 match if he is picked.