Shahbaz Ahmed of the Royal Challengers Bangalore takes flight after claiming a wicket against Sunrisers Hyderabad in the IPL match in Chennai on April 14, 2021. Image Credit: PTI

The Royal Challengers Bangalore are leading the pack in the Indian Premier League 2021. They are the only unbeaten side after eight days of action in Season 14. All the teams have played two games each. Barring the Sunrisers Hyderabad, the seven other teams have won a game each.

Can Bangalore build on the early impetus to power towards their maiden IPL title? It’s too early to debate the possibility. Defending champions Mumbai Indians, who are notoriously slow-starters, have picked themselves well after an early loss. So have another marquee team, the Chennai Super Kings.

Let’s look at how each team have performed after eight matches in IPL 14.

Royal Challengers Bangalore: Unlikely leaders

Led by India captain Virat Kohli, the Royal Challengers Bangalore generally are slow off the blocks. So two wins in the first two matches are a huge surprise. Those wins came at the end of some heart-stopping action, which has been the hallmark of most games this year.

Bangalore lanced downed Mumbai on the last ball of the inaugural match, with their talismanic player AB de Villiers soothing their frayed nerves with some thunderous strokes. De Villiers’ rescue acts are not new for Bangalore, but their continued reliance on the South African reflects poorly on the rest of the batsmen.

The rest of the batting wasn’t bad, with Kohli anchoring them in the opener’s role, which he repeated against Hyderabad. But the form of new acquisition Glenn Maxwell has thrilled Bangalore. He played two electrifying knocks, and the half-century against Hyderabad laid the foundation for their victory.

Slog-over bowling has repeatedly undermined Bangalore, but Harshal Patel turned in superb performances in the first two matches. And he enjoys Kohli’ trust. Mohammed Siraj’s seems to enjoy the frontline seamer role, and left-arm spinner Shahbaz Ahmed has proved to be a match-winner with his three strikes in one over that killed off Hyderabad hopes.

Deepak Chahar
Deepak Chahar of the Chennai Super Kings celebrates after taking the wicket of Deepak Hooda of the Punjab Kings in the IPL match in Mumbai on April 16 2021. Image Credit: Sportzpics

Chennai Super Kings: New beginnings

Mahendra Singh Dhoni was grinning after the win against the Punjab Kings, his 200th game for the Chennai Super Kings. He no doubt was pleased with the performance, particularly since Chennai capitulated against the Delhi Capitals in the previous game. Chennai didn’t put a foot wrong in the Punjab match, where the bowlers led the way.

Seamer Deepak Chahar’s four-wicket haul in a four-over burst was impressive as he moved the ball around. The rest of the bowlers too weighed in well to throttle the side led by K.L. Rahul. But there will be more searching examinations in the matches to come.

They struggled against Delhi when openers Prithvi Shaw and Shikhar Dhawan put the bowling to sword. Considering that mauling, it was a good comeback.

Suresh Raina’s return has strengthened the Chennai batting, and the left-hander showed that his skills haven’t waned with a powerful knock against Delhi. But his persistent weakness against the short ball was laid bare by Punjab pacemen.

Barring opener Ruturaj Gaikwad’s poor run of form, there aren’t too many batting worries for Chennai at the moment. So the youngster is likely to get an extended run to regain his touch. Moeen Ali’s two authoritative knocks showed that he has adequately filled the breach left by Shane Watson’s retirement, and his off-breaks are a bonus. Indeed, there are green shoots after the ignominious exit last season.

Rahul Chahar
Mumbai Indians leg-spinner Rahul Chahar celebrates after taking the wicket of Kolkata Knight Riders’ captain Eoin Morgan in the IPL match in Chennai on April 13 2021. Image Credit: Sportzpics

Mumbai Indians: The batting slip is showing

You can always safely bet on the Mumbai Indians losing their first match. But it would be foolhardy to bet against a hat-trick of IPL titles for them. Rohit Sharma’s side may have lost the inaugural game against the Royal Challengers Bangalore, but they took it to the wire with a gritty performance that showed why they have five IPL trophies in their cupboard.

The bitter memories of that loss were erased with a win against the Kolkata Knight Riders. But the two matches provided plenty of evidence of the cracks in their much-vaunted batting.

Suryakumar Yadav continues to unfurl sublime strokes that make a mockery of the bowling. But his departure puts the brakes on the Mumbai scoring, and the late-order flourish from brothers Hardik and Krunal Pandya, and Kieron Pollard hasn’t materialised yet. The result has been sub-par totals.

The bowlers have kept Mumbai in the hunt against Bangalore, where the lanky Marco Jansen made a memorable debut. And leggie Rahul Chahar turned in a match-winning display against Kolkata. The rest of the bowlers too have stood up to the scrutiny very well. If Mumbai have to regain their aura of invincibility, the batsmen too should raise their game.

Rishabh Pant of Delhi
Delhi Capitals’ skipper Rishabh Pant, who went in at 16-2 in the fourth over, settled the nerves with a 51 off 32 balls, in the IPL game against the Rajasthan Royals in Mumbai on April 15 2021. Image Credit: PTI

Delhi Capitals: Focus on captain Pant

New captain Rishabh Pant’s leadership skills have been under scanner. He was a bit nervous in their opening match against the Chennai Super Kings, but the challenge was well handled by openers Prithvi Shaw and Shikhar Dhawan. Pant communicates well with his bowlers, especially when under attack, but his inexperience showed in the loss against the Rajasthan Royals when he failed to use the full quota of offspinner Ravichandran Ashwin who had a very good match.

Such oversights are expected of a very young captain, and he will learn from the tactical errors. But this mistake may have cost Delhi the match, as Rajasthan came back from the dead. It was a match where pacemen Chris Woakes, Avesh Khan and Kagiso Rabada had Rajasthan on the rack. So the loss will hurt.

The batting needs more consistency. If Shaw and Dhawan led the charge against Chennai, it was left to Pant to shore up the innings against Rajasthan. The result was a relatively easy total to chase, but bowlers nearly won the game for Delhi. But they can’t afford to lose such close matches as the tournament progresses.

Rajasthan v Delhi IPL
David Miller lit up Rajasthan Royals’ chase with 62 from 43 balls, before Chris Morris completed the stunning comeback with four sixes in the last 10 balls overs to overtake Delhi’s 147-8. Image Credit: PTI

Rajasthan Royals: Searching for consistency

Sanju Samson, the new captain, returned a mixed bag of results for the Rajasthan Royals. He led from the front with an imperious century against the Punjab Kings that took Rajasthan to the brink of victory. His refusal to take a run off the penultimate ball and the subsequent four-run loss will continue to fuel debates, but Rajasthan have to look beyond that episode.

They did. Without Samson’s signature knock, Rajasthan overcame a perilous early period during which they lost five wickets under 50 runs and went on snatch the game from the Delhi Capitals. That was mainly due to a mature knock from David Miller and some sizzling shots from Chris Morris, who owns the record IPL paycheque.

For a side that includes England stalwarts Jos Buttler and Ben Stokes, Rajasthan batting has been fragile. If it was not for an injury to Stokes, Miller wouldn’t have played. That defies logic since Miller is a proven match-winner. A gun player or an X-factor player, as they are referred to these days. Even when Stokes returns, Rajasthan should find a way to play both of them. And that’s imperative for a side with late middle-order batting worries.

Winners of the inaugural edition, Rajasthan bowled well in both matches. True, they were lashed around by Deepak Hooda and K.L. Rahul in the high-scoring Punjab encounter. But then, batsmen have always relished the Wankhede Stadium pitch.

The impressive spells of young left-arm seamer Chetan Sakariya and the return to form of Jaydev Unadkat helped wreak havoc on the Delhi batting. Morris and Mustafizur Rahman too looked good, but sterner tests await them.

Nitish Rana
Nitish Rana gave the Kolkata Knight Riders electrifying starts in both the IPL games. Image Credit: Sportzpics

Kolkata Knight Riders: Aggression unleashed

England’s white-ball cricket captain Eoin Morgan has brought his philosophy of unbridled aggression to the Kolkata Knight Riders. That resulted in a win and a loss for the two-time winners. Predictably, Morgan took a lot of flak for Kolkata’s inexplicable collapse against the Mumbai Indians in a game that was in the bag. England bat deep, so does Kolkata. But the aggression hasn’t worked well in the IPL so far.

Morgan wouldn’t be dissuaded from changing the approach, but at times safer tactics pay better dividends. Like the game against Mumbai. And on a tricky pitch, like the one at the M.A. Chidambaram Stadium in Chennai.

It worked well against the Sunrisers Hyderabad, which doesn’t have a menacing attack, and an unstable middle-order. It also is largely due to the splendid form of Nitish Rana, who has provided blistering starts in the company of Shubman Gill. If the middle-order fails to build on the launch, then Kolkata will be in trouble.

That would be a pity since they have depth and variety in bowling. The return of Bangladesh allrounder Shakib Al Hasan has brought more balance to the side and given more teeth to the spinners led by Varun Chakravarthy, who is having another good season. And Morgan has been utilising his spin resources well, with Harbajan Singh opening the bowling and even completing the first powerplay with an all-spin attack. That despite the presence of Pat Cummins, Prasidh Krishna, and Andre Russell is enough proof of their potency. And that’s bound to carry them deep into the tournament.

Punjab Kings: New name, old habits

The Kings XI Punjab have transformed into Punjab Kings for “a fresh look and fresh feel”. That hasn’t brought a change in fortunes. A narrow win against the Rajasthan Royals preceded a humiliation at the hands of the Chennai Super Kings. And that’s not exactly the kind of start skipper K.L. Rahul would have hoped for.

Rahul seems to continue the rich vein of form from last season. Chris Gayle too. Deepak Hooda and Shahrukh Khan have fired well with their six-hitting skills, but that approach would never have consistency, as evident from the batting horrors against then Chennai Super Kings. Nicholas Pooran’s run-drought too have hurt them.

Punjab have a decent pace attack led by Indian international Mohammed Shami, and the death overs have been expertly handled by young Arshdeep Singh. Australians Jhye Richardson and Riley Meredith looked good without being incisive, but they can only get better as the tournament wears on. But they need good totals to defend.

Sunrisers Hyderabad: Warner’s dilemma

The Sunrisers Hyderabad had an awful start last season, yet they recovered well enough to make the knockout stage. They have had a terrible start this season too, losing both matches. The loss against the Royal Challengers Bangalore will hurt them very badly since they were galloping to a comprehensive win before they imploded. It isn’t the first time, and it won’t be the last one either for the 2016 champions.

Part of the brittle batting can be explained by the composition of the team. When a team have David Warner, Johnny Bairstow, Jason Roy and Kane Williamson, it’s difficult to accommodate all of them. Afghanistan leggie Rashid Khan is irreplaceable, and West Indian Jason Holder’s all-round skills are important. But Williamson’s presence is vital to provide steel to the middle order. That’s Warner’s problem, and there’s no easy solution.

The only solution lies in finding an excellent Indian pace bowler to take Vijay Shankar’s slot. That would allow Williamson to take the fourth overseas player slot from Holder. But then the West Indian captain has had a very good outing against Bangalore. So dropping him is not an easy decision.

Warner needs to make some tough decisions. That’s the only way to bring the Hyderabad campaign back on track.