Overseas captaincy is a catch-22 situation in Indian Premier League

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The league stage of this 2017 Indian Premier League season came to a head on Sunday, when Rising Pune Supergiant clashed with Kings XI Punjab in a virtual knockout for the latter.

Kings XI had done well to keep their hopes alive until that game, winning against Kolkata Knight Riders and Mumbai Indians in the previous week.

Then, it all went to waste as Punjab were bowled out for 73. Coach Virender Sehwag then laid into the team’s batting line-up, in particular the overseas players.

“At least one of the top four batsmen – Glenn Maxwell, Shaun Marsh, Martin Guptill and Eoin Morgan – should have taken responsibility and batted for 12-15 overs. They were complaining that the wicket was slow but you have to play out the 20 overs at least since you play so much international cricket,” he complained.

The business end of any IPL season is a time for franchises to take stock of their decisions. For teams in the top half of the points’ table, it is about the situation at hand, and what needs to be done to succeed in the playoffs. For the bottom half, it is about reviewing why things didn’t work.

Glenn Maxwell.

Glenn Maxwell.

In that light, Sehwag’s pointed attack against Maxwell stood out. “When Maxwell fires, he can win the match on his own. But he didn’t fire in most games this season. That is a big disappointment for us, especially since he is an experienced player for Australia in all formats. He didn’t take responsibility, and didn’t perform for Kings XI Punjab,” said the coach.

Maxwell returned 310 runs from 14 matches (highest of 47) in the league stage this season. How does that compare to the other captains who didn’t qualify for the playoffs?

For last-placed Royal Challengers Bangalore, Virat Kohli started the tournament late owing to his shoulder injury, and scored 308 runs from 10 games (four halfcenturies). For Gujarat Lions – who finished seventh – Suresh Raina shrugged off a patchy start and scored 442 runs in 14 matches (three fifties), placing himself fourth on the run-getters’ list at the end of the league stage.

Delhi Daredevils used Zaheer Khan (10 wickets in 11 matches at economy 7.79) and Karun Nair (281 runs in 14 innings) as their two captains.

Bangalore and Gujarat had two high profile Indian cricketers who were always going to be named captain. Moreover, both these franchises had made the playoffs last year, with Bangalore runners-up.

Delhi didn’t make the playoffs last year either and there could have been a case for picking a different skipper if JP Duminy had been available. Injury put paid to that option, and Zaheer led the side barring two games where he missed out due to injury.

The underlying point is about the balance any franchise looks to achieve in its squad with the optimal captaincy candidate.

Could Delhi have picked someone else in Duminy’s absence, say, punting on Nair for the entire season, or even another overseas player (read Chris Morris/Corey Anderson)?

The Daredevils’ fate was all but sealed with five games remaining. It was different for Kings XI, who were fighting until the end, and thus it cannot be argued that they would have benefitted from a change in captaincy mid-way through the season. There is precedent though for this – in 2013, Rohit Sharma replaced Ricky Ponting as skipper of Mumbai Indians, after the latter deemed his form wasn’t good enough to merit selection in their first-choice XI.

Sharma then went on to lead Mumbai to their first IPL title that season. It puts the focus on another aspect of this captaincy debate. Should an overseas player be the leadership choice of an IPL franchise?

This is a tricky issue as a maximum of four foreign players can be picked in any 11. The designated captain then must be someone who is an automatic selection in the starting team.

David Warner.

David Warner.

In the current scheme of things, only David Warner (Hyderabad) and Steve Smith (Pune, below) are two such overseas players who fit this description. Warner, in fact, is only one of three overseas captains to have lifted the IPL trophy, after Shane Warne (Rajasthan Royals in 2008) and Adam Gilchrist (erstwhile Deccan Chargers in 2009).

Since the 2009 edition, an Indian captain has lifted the title – MS Dhoni, Gautam Gambhir and Sharma (twice each) – before Warner broke that trend in 2016.

Perhaps it inspired the Pune franchise to take the massive decision of sidelining Dhoni and handing the captaincy charge to Smith.

After a slow start to this season, the franchise reversed their 2016 form and made it to the final on Sunday. It has proven to be a wellcalculated move. After all, Smith is arguably the best batsman – and indeed captain – in international cricket today, across formats.

In the end then, the question for Kings XI Punjab to ask is whether Maxwell belongs in the same category as Smith and Warner.

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