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The curious case of the Delhi Daredevils

With IPL 6 just around the corner, now would be a perfect time to sit back and analyse a team that I have been following since the first IPL, the Delhi Daredevils, a team which, on paper, should have more to show than just two semifinal appearances and one playoff appearance. It is a team which really should have gone on to win the IPL title on several occasions in the last 5 seasons. Is it a case of unfulfilled potential or just a mental block? Paper tigers was a term that was often used to describe the team. Other fans drew a parallel between the Daredevils and the South African Cricket team when it came down to performing in crunch games.

Having analysed their last 5 seasons and the results obtained in that time frame, I can best describe it as a bell curve distribution. In the first season, the team made some solid purchases and built a very competitive side with a good mixture of youth and experience. Sehwag and Gambhir, two of India’s best ever openers and Ranji Trophy team mates themselves, formed an explosive combination for the opening slot. The batting lineup also boasted the likes of Dilshan, A.B De Villiers and Shoaib Malik to name a few. The bowling lineup was equally impressive with the presence of seasoned campaigners like Glen McGrath and Daniel Vettori, and were ably supported by Amit Mishra, who had a fantastic first season. Though there was always one batsman I was a bit puzzled that the Daredevils never brought into the squad: Virat Kohli. Kohli had just come into the spotlight due to the fact that he was the captain of the victorious U-19 Team India squad that had won the World Cup in 2007. He was eventually snapped up by The Royal Challengers of Bangalore and has become somewhat of a talisman for that team. The fact that Kohli is from Delhi makes me question why he wasn’t drafted in. But this is just the mere musings of a fan.

The team did well in that first season and reached the semis. But there they fell to the eventual champions Rajasthan Royals, who, after initial hiccups, were a dominant force that season. The second season in South Africa was one in which the Daredevils reached their zenith. One smart acquisition they made was to bring in young Aussie batsman David Warner, who is now one of the most explosive batsmen in world cricket. They utterly dominated the league stages and A.B De Villiers was a standout performer in that campaign as he reveled in his home conditions. Another standout performer was new recruit Dirk Nannes, who had just been drafted into the team. His performances were so good in the seamer friendly conditions of South Africa that he kept out Aussie legend Glen McGrath. No mean feat in itself. The Daredevils marched into the semifinals as league leaders and looked to be favourites to win the title. But in the semis, they came up against a spirited Deccan Chargers squad that was superbly led by Adam Gilchrist. Having restricted the Daredevils to a par score, Gilchrist then took the proverbial bull by the horns and played a swashbuckling innings. His half century took the game away from the Daredevils and Deccan eventually went on to win the title. Yet again, there I was, watching in disappointment, as my Daredevils had again faltered at the penultimate stage for the second year running.

I was under the impression that the third season may be the turning point for the Devils. May be this time they could fulfill the potential to become champions. The IPL had moved back to India for this season and so expectations were running high. But there was one seemingly small change in backroom staff that according to me had a massive effect on the squad. Mr T.A. Sekar had been the mentor of the Daredevils for the past two seasons and under his guidance the team had achieved some magnificent results. He had decided to part ways with the Daredevils and had signed on as team director of the Mumbai Indians. As it panned out, this was a major setback for the Daredevils. They struggled to maintain any kind of momentum throughout the tournament and eventually missed out on the semifinals. Mr Sekar’s new team, though, flourished under his able guidance and went on to make the finals that season, where they ultimately lost to Mahendra Singh Dhoni’s Superkings. I was thoroughly disappointed with this season and hoped that things would look up for the future of the team. But I was sadly mistaken.

IPL 4 was the nadir for the Daredevils. They finished last in the standings and were completely outplayed by nearly all teams that season. What went wrong? Well, this was the first season after the latest player auction where franchises had the option of retaining 4 players and then bidding for new players. The Daredevils only decided to retain icon player Sehwag and let go of the rest of their stars. Big mistake in my opinion as I felt some players like Gambhir and A.B. De Villiers should have been retained and the team should have been built around them. Gambhir, as you all know, went on to win the IPL title last season and A.B.D has shone for the Royal Challengers and played a crucial role in them reaching the final in IPL 4. This was where I felt the Superkings did really well. They retained the likes of Dhoni, Raina, Vijay and Badrinath and then went on to bring most of their earlier squad back together. In doing so, they built a team that Dhoni was very familiar with. They followed the old adage of “old wine in a new bottle” and that familiarity factor was crucial in them retaining their IPL title. The players brought in for the Daredevils that season just weren’t good enough, according to me. Yes, David Warner was re-recruited along with South African speed merchant Morne Morkel, but the team was mediocre. The Daredevils ended up with the dubious wooden spoon. I think this dramatic collapse led to a lot of soul searching on the part of the management of the team. This led to some wholesale changes for the next season.

IPL 5 saw the Daredevils go from zeroes in the previous season to heroes as they finished as league leaders, with some great performances in all their matches. There were convincing wins as well as games in which they snatched victory from the jaws of defeat. What led to this drastic rise in fortunes? Some very shrewd purchases at the auction, really. Kevin Pietersen was bought from the Deccan Chargers for a hefty fee, but he more than made up for the price tag with some delightful knocks. Mahela Jayawardene was drafted in to add some much needed steel to the batting lineup. But by far the most important signing slipped under the radar really. Mr T.A.Sekar was brought back into the Daredevils team management as team mentor and this was, according to me, the turning point. The bowling aspect of the squad seemed to have greatly improved after his arrival. Two of India’s current crop of speed demons, Varun Aaron and Umesh Yadav, bowled some cracking spells.

Last season belonged to Morne Morkel though. He was absolutely sensational. Bowled some unplayable deliveries and Yorkers and always took wickets at crucial intervals. Riding on his bowling exploits, the Daredevils cruised to the top of the pile. But in the playoff stage, some baffling team tactics led to the Daredevils losing to the Knightriders first and then to the Superkings. The fact that Morne Morkel didn’t play in that do or die game for Delhi really baffled me. He was the highest wicket taker in the tournament and his exclusion was shocking in that crunch match. Quoting Dr. Leonard McCoy from the 2009 Star Trek film, “If you’re gonna ride in the Kentucky Derby, you don’t leave your prize stallion in the stable.” In this situation, Morne was that stallion.

All said and done there have been several ups and downs for the Daredevils in the last 5 years. The team has made some smart acquisitions in the off season this time. They have drafted in the likes of the explosive Jesse Ryder, Johan Botha and Jeevan Mendis. All very shrewd purchases, with a wealth of experience to their credit. They also add a much needed depth to the squad. At the same time, there is some bad news in the form of Kevin Pietersen being ruled out of the entire tournament due to injury. His absence is a big blow to the team as he was a standout performer last season. As the new season draws ever so near, I look forward with hope. The team, on paper, is a very strong and competent one and I hope they can cross that final frontier and become champions. Here’s wishing the Daredevils the best of luck and may the force be with them.

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