Gujarat Titans
David Miller and Lockie Ferguson of Gujarat Titans celebrate after winning against the Chennai Super Kings in the Tata Indian Premier League 2022 game at the MCA International Stadium in Pune, India, on April 17, 2022. Image Credit: Sportzpics for IPL

Here’s a dare. Make your prediction: who will win the IPL? Can’t be the Mumbai Indians; they are at the base of the points table. Chennai Super Kings? No, they are dawdling in the ninth place in the 10-team tournament. What about Delhi Capitals? They have been failing spectacularly to find themselves at one spot above the CSK.

These three are IPL heavyweights. Mumbai and Chennai have nine of the 14 IPL titles, and although Delhi had never won, they looked like champions-in-waiting. Among the multiple IPL winners, the Kolkata Knight Riders have a balanced side on paper and an enviable spin attack. But the two-time winners are struggling with their inconsistent batting and poor seam bowling.

So predicting the winner this year is hazardous. You could be horribly wrong. Just like me. I picked Chennai right after the mega auction because there retained the core of seven players from the side that won last year. They didn’t have suitable replacements for Josh Hazlewood and Shardul Thakur, and a matchwinning leggie was missing in the new squad. But Chennai have always utilised bowling resources well enough to win. But how wrong I was? The misfiring batting magnified CSK’s woes, and their campaign started with four losses. MS Dhoni’s move to hand over the reins to Ravindra Jadeja made a bad situation worse.

Sanju Samson
The captaincy of Sanju Samson of the Rajasthan Royals has hardly been inspiring. He's the quiet sort, but a captain should be able to encourage the players to give off their best besides taking tactical decisions. Samson could learn from Sunrisers Hyderabad's Kane Williamson on how to be a calm but shrewd leader. Image Credit: Sportszpics for IPL

I never even considered Mumbai. The batting malaise from the previous year persists, and Tim David for Hardik Pandya didn’t work out given the Singaporean’s inability to handle spin. And they missed Trent Boult’s early assault, which meant Jasprit Bumrah had to bowl in the powerplay. Leggie Murugan Ashwin lacked spin support.

When Chennai and Mumbai slipped, I thought Kolkata stood a good chance of adding to their two titles. Wrong again. Venkatesh Iyer is at risk of turning into a one-season wonder, and skipper Shreyas Iyer’s brave batting hasn’t received adequate support. Sunil Narine has been brilliant, but his spin twin Varun Chakravarthy is struggling. So is the rest of the bowling.

At the end of 30 matches, most teams have played at least six games. The Gujarat Titans are perched on top of the table with 10 points, followed by Rajasthan Royals, Lucknow Super Giants, Royal Challengers Bangalore and Sunrisers Hyderabad with eight each. Potentially, all of them have a real shot at the title.

Rajasthan have a well-rounded team. The batting is led by the irrepressible Jos Buttler in glorious form, followed by Devdutt Padikkal, captain Sanju Samson and Shimron Hetmyer, all of whom have contributed well. Boult provides early breakthroughs, and spinners Yuzvendra Chahal and Ravichandran Ashwin throttle the middle-overs with wickets. But they have leaked runs in the slog, although Kuldeep Sen and Obed McCoy have bowled well in heartstopping finishes.

Despite the riches, Rajasthan doesn’t look like a champion side. Samson’s captaincy has hardly been inspiring, losing matches they should have won. And winning games narrowly when they should have stormed to victories. A strong leader would make a difference.

The riches of Lucknow Super Giants

Lucknow is packed with allrounders like Marcus Stoinis, Jason Holder, Deepak Hooda and Krishnappa Gowtham. They have a feared opening pair in K.L. Rahul and Quinton de Kock. So where’s the problem? It’s the bowling; it lacks teeth. Dushmantha Chameera and Avesh Khan impressed in some matches, and leggie Ravi Bishnoi hasn’t been at his best . That doesn’t make them good enough to make the last four.

Initially, I thought this could be Bangalore’s season. But that early promise has wilted as the RCB grapples with multiple problems. The patchy batting places a heavy strain on Dinesh Karthik, whose barnstorming in the late order has been rescue acts. The arrival of Glenn Maxwell will ease that load, while Hazlewood seems to have brought stability to the bowling. Harshal Patel is constantly striving to repair the damage caused by Mohammed Siraj’s waywardness. Leg-spinner Wanindu Hasaranga is a genuine matchwinner, but he needs runs on the board. If RCB can fix their batting, they could be contenders.

Hyderabad is not a star-studded side. Each of them pulls their weight, and Kane Williamson’s calm but shrewd captaincy has worked wonders. Samson could well take a leaf out of SRH captain’s book on how to lead a side quietly and efficiently. Bhuvaneshwar Kumar, Umran Malik, Marco Jansen and T. Natarajan have bowled with fire and purpose, but Washington Sundar’s form and injury have left them without quality spin support. They have been winning but not dominant enough to go the distance.

That leaves us with Gujarat Titans, who are a revelation. I was unimpressed with their buys at the auction; it seemed they hadn’t covered all the bases. They would be some weak spots, I thought. But Hardik Pandya has led the side with an infectious enthusiasm that gives Gujarat the look of champions. Pandya’s restraint at the No 4 has been simply superb, and that restraint has translated into belligerence when the situation demands.

There are worries. Batting hasn’t been consistent, and hence some of the wins have been close affairs. The bowling has been incisive in the hands of Mohammad Shami, Lockie Ferguson and Rashid Khan and that has helped offset the missteps in batting.

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Can they be champions? A team that win five of its six games should be considered champion material. But this is a new team, and there lies the weakness and the strength. Weakness because every win is a celebration, and they could lose sight of the title. And that could be a strength as well since there is no pressure. Without pressure, teams tend to do well.

Will they win? No, but they will make the last four. I think they will lose steam in the knockout phase. That’s when the champions strut their stuff, and Gujarat may come a cropper.

I’m now terrified of making a call, having burnt with the picks of CSK and KKR. But if I have to, I will pick Rajasthan, hoping that Samson’s captaincy improves. They have the team to do it, but they are tactically poor. The good thing about predictions is that you can keep changing them. So watch this space for more predictions.