It may be the antithesis of professional sport at the highest level, but underdogs find a special place in the hearts of fans once they storm the exclusive domain. With unpredictability the essence of Twenty20 cricket, they have only added to the excitement of this year’s league.
Rajasthan Royals proved the surprise packet in the inaugural edition in 2008. With Shane Warne’s leadership qualities in full show, it inspired average players to take on big-name franchises and clinch the title.
This year, the Royals are again alive and kicking. Making up for tight budget, they have struck to old methods, getting the best out of home-bred players. Skipper Rahul Dravid, much like Warne, has led from the front. On Tue­sday, Dravid and understudy Ajinkya Rahane extended Royals’ unbeaten run at home to seven games. Dravid has been spot on, be it team selections or experimenting with the side. He has also been flexible with the batting order.
Sporting romance is a lot about over-achievers. In 2004, Detroit Pistons, with no major star, not just reached the NBA finals but upstaged LA Lakers led by Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal. In Italy, Chievo, a modest club from a Verona suburb, stunned all on Serie A debut in 2001/2, finishing fifth to qualify for the UEFA Cup.
In the T20 league, Sunrisers Hyderabad have also punched above their weight in their inaugural season. Kings XI Punjab are not far behind.
For the Royals, it has all been abo­ut creating a winning environment. In 2011, Warne introduced a ‘doll’ named Pinky and a cap with the slogan “You Ban­ana”. It was handed to anyone coming late for practice or team me­etings. Players felt humiliated, but it brought the team closer.
Dravid has found his own way. “Rahul bhai is a cool cricketer, a very good captain. I come from a small village, but playing under him, you don’t feel that,” said wicketkeeper, Dishant Yagnik.
Coach Paddy Upton said: “We have an unassuming set of players and we’ve relied a lot on Indian players. Our focus has been according value to playing as a team. Indian players sometimes tend to be reserved, so we make sure seniors help them out.” Kings XI coach Darren Lehm­ann says smaller teams are smarter. “Grooming domestic talent is one of the things we are looking at. We have given youngsters like Manan Vohra a good stint at the big stage. Mandeep Singh too has done well in the opportunities given in the last seasons.”
Thanks to teams like Royals, Sunrisers and Kings XI, the monotony of one-sided matches has been lifted.