The two standout performances of the 2018 edition of the Indian Premier League (IPL), while immensely enjoyable by all standards, is more important because it defines the future of international cricket, and the multiple leagues that run in the T20 format. The profile of these two players, Shane Watson (37 years) and Rashid Khan (19 years), who led their teams to success, will come into focus each time a game of cricket is played.
Let’s start with the elder one of the two, Watson. Ten years after he finished the inaugural IPL in 2008 as Player of the Tournament, the Australian all-rounder, on Sunday, single-handedly chased down the target set by opponents Sunrisers Hyderabad in the IPL 2018 final to hand his team, Chennai Super Kings (CSK), their third title.
Watto came into CSK on the back of two horrendous years with Royal Challengers Bangalore under Virat Kohli, the Indian captain. He had scored just 250 runs from 24 matches during the 2016 and 2017 seasons. Obviously, he was released by the franchise and it was unlikely that any team would pick him up for the 11th edition, with the buzzwords on the auction tables being youth and current form. Watson himself might have been surprised that there was a buyer for him in CSK.
He decided to celebrate the second coming by surprising the world of cricket, smashing a total of 555 runs, including two centuries. The second one is now the highest-ever individual score in the finals. Even his captain, the legendary MS Dhoni, now being widely hailed for leading a team consisting of “seniors” to a title win, nicknamed him Shane ‘Shocking’ Watson after the knock.
If Watson belongs to one of the leading cricketing nations, having had the privilege of competing and winning at the highest levels of the game, Rashid Khan hails from Afghanistan, newbies to international cricket, thrilled to be admitted to the big league. While Afghanistan cricket is still finding its feet, Rashid has already earned a name for himself. The Sunrisers splurged Rs 4 crore on him in 2017, and then double-splurged Rs 9 crore to retain him this season, after a bidding war between multiple franchises drove up his price from a base of Rs 2 crore.
The leg-spinner continued his good form through the league stage and was a key player in helping the franchise top the table. Having lost the first qualifier to CSK, the Sunrisers faced off against Kolkata Knight Riders (KKR) in the second qualifier to earn a place in the final. All seemed lost, when Rashid walked to crease and gave the world a glimpse of his batting skills, taking the team to a respectable total. He followed the cameo with his bat with a scintillating performance with the ball, and topped it with two catches and run-out. Born was a T20 all-rounder from a country which will be playing only its first Test match this month.
With Dhoni dad’s army the flavour of the season, all franchises will now be scurrying around trying to explain to themselves what the right way is to spend money while putting together an IPL team. The best of the best players in the world of T20 were part of the remaining six teams which did not compete in the final. In fact, many a team were spoilt for choice when they had to pick a playing 11. But it was two players of diametrically opposite characteristics which defined the season for their teams and IPL.
While it will be easy to say that the experience of a bunch of seniors (nine players over 30) was the reason for CSK winning the trophy, it would be a lazy analysis. Many youngsters put up noteworthy performances, but as it was mentioned in this column earlier, the captaincy of Dhoni for CSK and Kane Williamson for Sunrisers was the key differentiating factor. They way these two skippers handled their squads, you could have given them any combination from the pool of players that participated in this edition, and they would have come up on top.
They gave their players the freedom to express themselves, without taking pressure on themselves to win. In a short format like the T20, there is no margin for error. The victor is the one with the least number of errors, and a leader's confidence in his team minimises the mistakes made. Though Rashid came second in the final battle, his performance with the ball remained exemplary. If Watson had not run amuck with two of his colleagues, there might have been a different story to tell.
On the international front, the heroics of Watson and Rashid will chart a new course for cricketers. Players from the smaller countries will be emboldened to sharpen their skills as there are now multiple platforms like the IPL to make a mark even if their country remains in cricketing doldrums. For the Watsons of the world, there will be a newfound respect, and franchises will gladly loosen their purse strings in proportion to the age and experience. The youngsters will also have learned their lesson and not depend only on misplaced aggression to take them over the line. Read Virat.
(The writer is a co-founder of SportzPower and The Fan Garage)