WITH JUST five ODIs and six T20S under his belt, England and Kent batsman Sam Billings is a bit of an unknown commodity in international circuit. However, those who have seen him in county cricket are mighty impressed with his innovative strokeplay, especially towards the fag end of the innings. At 23, Billings got a first hand experience of playing in a T20 league outside England, when he was picked for the Islamabad franchise in the inaugural season of the Pakistan Super League (PSL), earlier this year.
Following his PSL stint, the Delhi Daredevils snapped the 23-year-old at a base price of Rs 30 lakh at the IPL auction in Bengaluru two months ago. In the process, he formed part of a small, but select group of English cricketers to play for IPL this season. The others being Jos Buttler (Mumbai Indians), Kevin Pietersen (Rising Pune Supergiants) and Eoin Morgan (Sunrisers Hyderabad).
Billings, on his part, was not in the reckoning for the first six games of the Daredevils. He finally made his much awaited debut against the Kolkata Knight Riders at the Feroz Shah Kotla tonight, where he showcased his potential. Walking in with Delhi struggling at 3/37 at the end of Powerplay, he stroked a belligerent half century to put his side in a commanding position at the end of the first innings. The hallmark of the game was the manner in which he had paced his innings. His 95-run stand for the fourth wicket with Karun Nair, laid the platform for Carlos Brathwaithe to explode in the end.
Billings’ success on his IPL debut illustrates how smart the Daredevils have played, especially while picking their foreign players. Their success have catapulted the Zaheer Khan-led side to the second spot in team rankings. Billings might have come relatively cheap for the Daredevils. But they have splurged on the likes of Chris Morris (Rs 7 crore) and Carlos Brathwaithe (Rs 4.2 crore). At the time of the auction, the move had baffled most observers.
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The reason being Morris was still not a certainty in the Proteas line-up. And Brathwaithe, despite showing his all-round skills at the Carribean Premier League (CPL), had done little in international cricket to inspire confidence. The perception would change after his humongous hitting helped West Indies win their second World T20 crown. The Daredevils think tank backed their picks, saying both Morris and Brathwaithe were the all-rounders, who would add balance to the side.
The duo justified their expensive price-tags, exhibiting their skills at crucial junctures in the tournament so far. Morris started off in a relatively subdued fashion, bowling with lot of pace and heart but had little to show in the wickets column. His big IPL moment came three nights ago against the Lions at home.
His crucial two wickets in the middle overs, dented Lions’ charge. Later that night, he played, by his own admission, his greatest T20 innings to come close to pulling off an incredible heist. An unbeaten 82 off just 32 deliveries, which included eight monstrous maximums took Delhi close.
Morris, failed with bat against the KKR tonight, but he returned with the ball to pick up a wicket and then orchestrate a crucial run-out of Jason Holder to tilt the game in favour of the hosts. Brathwaithe, too has had a subdued start. Suddenly, all his exploits in the World T20 final looked like a thing of the distant past. The 28-year-old got his chance to redeem himself tonight. A match-defining 34 off just 13 deliveries made the difference in the end. At one stage a score of 160 looked probable. However, his lusty hits meant the Daredevils ended their first innings on 186, a highly competitive score on a sluggish Kotla track. He would then return to pick three crucial wickets to halt KKR’s charge. His all-round efforts won him the Player-of-the Match award.
Apart from the two, the core group of foreigners in this squad consists mostly of South Africans — Quinton De Kock, JP Duminy, Imran Tahir, and Chris Morris. Wicket-keeper De Kock, has been prolific at the top of the order, giving the Daredevils rollicking starts upfront. An unbeaten fifty against Punjab was followed by an emphatic ton against the RCB in the following game. In the end, both turned out to be match-winning efforts. His compatriot JP Duminy, has not featured in all the games so far.
However, he has been a vital cog for them in the middle overs. His knocks against Mumbai Indians, and Gujarat Lions (40s in both games), underlined his utility for the franchise. Meanwhile, Imran Tahir has been mostly used as the second leg-spinner. The 37-year-old, however, played a key role in his side’s resurgence against the Gujarat Lions. Mixing his pace cleverly, and bowling with a more attacking intent, Tahir ended with figures of 4-0-24-3.
Shades of Warne in Zaheer
In the last few seasons, Daredevils have hardly inspired confidence. They have finished at the bottom of the table for three consecutive seasons. In the past, they had splurged on some big names such as Yuvraj Singh and Angelo Mathews. But both had flopped miserably last season. The turnaround in their fortunes came with a change in their top brass. Taking a leaf out of the banned Rajasthan Royals’, the franchise inducted Rahul Dravid and Paddy Upton as the mentor and head coach respectively. The duo are well complemented by having a player of the calibre of Zaheer Khan as the captain. Zaheer’s appointment as captain seems to be a throwback to those heady Shane Warne days, where he helped Royals clinch the maiden IPL title.
Like Warne, Zaheer has been astute and attacking. His field placements have been smart, and there seems to be a certain insouciance to his approach. All this has translated into results for the Delhi Daredevils. Another eerie similarity to the Rajasthan Royals’ model is the emphasis on grooming youth. Which is why like their core foreign players, the franchise has also spent heavily on youngsters such as Pawan Negi (Rs 8.2 crore), Karun Nair (Rs 4 crore), and Sanju Samson (Rs 4.2 crore). The only sore point in their campaign so far has been that these youngsters have been largely inconsistent compared to the foreigners. Iyer, the highest scorer in Ranji Trophy last season, has inexplicably failed to get going in IPL 9. A string of failures as an opener has invariably put pressure on the likes of De Kock and Duminy.
Karun Nair has had two decent outings so far — an unbeaten 54 against RCB and 68 tonight versus the KKR. Sanju Samson has been off the boil, with just one fifty against the Mumbai Indians. Despite their largely indifferent form, the youngsters have showed glimpses of their potential. Perhaps, the biggest disappointment for the Daredevils has been how their most expensive pick – Pawan Negi has performed. The all-rounder has failed to live upto his top billing.
Going forward, the Daredevils think tank will be hoping the youngsters complement the foreigners. If they do that, they might be on their way to their first playoffs in four seasons.