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Cricket news - Sunrisers Hyderabad: Warner-Bairstow or bust

In an Ashes year, Warner and Bairstow put their forthcoming rivalry on the back-burner, giving way to a bromance

Usually, an IPL campaign that ends with a defeat in the Eliminator isn't one to be looked down upon. But that was a flattering finish for the Sunrisers Hyderabad, who only made the playoffs on the back of some stellar performances from a few individuals, and - most importantly - a lot of luck. It was the first time in the history of the competition that six wins in the league stage proved to be enough to qualify, with net run rate and some other favourable results coming into play. Eventually though, fortune could've only played so much of a role, before the very obvious weaknesses consumed them altogether.

Ironically, they had the misfortune of being one of the teams worst affected by the departures of international players ahead of the World Cup. While they were available together, Jonny Bairstow and David Warner were so prolific that they scored over 64% of the team's runs between themselves. But the downside was that the rest of the batsmen hadn't contributed a great deal. So when it was time to step up in the pair's absence towards the final stages of the tournament, they were completely out of touch.

There were two teams playing for the Sunrisers - one with Warner and Bairstow at the top, which was formidable and instilled a sense of fear in the opposition ranks, while the other one without the pair, which had a target on its back and couldn't even win a single game out of three. So dependent they were on the opening combination that in each of the five wins the duo were part of, Warner and Bairstow had at least 50-run stands if not more.

What worked for them?

An Englishman and an Australian opening the batting together at the top. In an Ashes year, Warner and Bairstow put their forthcoming rivalry on the back-burner, giving way to a bromance that England one-day captain Eoin Morgan, while talking to ESPNCricinfo, likened to the one between Cristiano Ronaldo and Wayne Rooney during their time together for Manchester United.

The duo started the tournament off with three consecutive 100-run stands, which included a record opening stand of 185 against Royal Challengers Bangalore. They went on to aggregate 791 runs in 10 innings, the most by an opening pair in an IPL season, and third on the all-time list of most partnership runs in a T20 league season. Both of them often spoke of how well they ran between the wickets and enjoyed batting together. But it was the brutal ball-striking that left the oppositions reeling.

With the ball, Rashid Khan had another superb tournament. There was a perception that he wasn't as effective as last year, but that was only because opposition batsmen mostly looked to shut shop against him, with the aim of guarding their wickets, as testified by Rashid's improved economy rate of 6.28 over last year's 6.73. Even so, the Afghan spinner managed 17 wickets, only four behind his tally in 2018.

What pulled them back?

Apart from Warner and Bairstow, and to an extent Manish Pandey - who found his footing after being promoted to No. 3 - the rest of the batting lineup had a forgettable season. Blame it on the lack of time spent in the middle, owing to the opening pair's phenomenal exploits, or the incompatibility with their batting positions, the likes of Vijay Shankar and Kane Williamson failed to step it up when called upon.

Vijay made an impressive start to the tournament, scoring rapid cameos, but fizzled out towards the end, finishing at an underwhelming strike-rate of 126.42, especially when his middle-order position required him to provide the impetus. Captain Williamson was hampered by the rustiness that develops while trying to come back from injury. A pectoral muscle tear forced him to miss a substantial part of the first half, and when he returned to the fold, the rhythm generally associated with his batting wasn't there. It didn't help that he had to sacrifice his opener's slot, where he had scored heavily to become the top-scorer last season.

In addition, Sunrisers also spent a lot of time fretting over the fifth bowling resource. Sandeep Sharma, Siddarth Kaul and Basil Thampi - they were all given opportunities but were largely expensive, each one going comfortably at more than 8 an over, and two of those three going at around 9.

What did they sorely miss?

A quality Indian batsman in the middle order. Manish Pandey and Vijay Shankar - both of them preferred playing in the No. 3 position, where they produced their best performances, and struggled lower down the order.

Yusuf Pathan had a miserable season, scoring just 40 runs in 10 matches at a strike-rate way below 100 (88.88). Deepak Hooda was not much better at 64 runs from 11 matches. Their failures forced the management to turn towards a rookie like Abhishek Sharma, which didn't pan out well either. What it meant was that SRH didn't have anyone reliable in the middle-order to drive the team forward on the odd occasion that the top-order faltered. The humiliating defeat against Mumbai Indians, where they were bowled out for 96 while chasing 137 highlighted this weakness rather glaringly.

Signing of the season?

Undoubtedly Jonny Bairstow. Hardly ever do new overseas batsmen acclimatise to the IPL as quickly as the England opener did. With 445 runs from 10 matches, at a strike rate of 157.24, Bairstow was a revelation. And it wasn't just the flat pitches that he thrived on. His free-flowing 48 from 28 balls on a low, slow Kotla pitch, where every other batsman struggled, showed the value he brought with him. The 29-year-old's power game, such a crucial element to succeed in the IPL, was equally impressive. His maiden IPL hundred came with a ferocity that even someone like Warner was forced to take a back-seat. All in all, buying him at a price of just INR. 2.2 crores proved to be quite a steal for Sunrisers.

What's on the highlights reel?

The 118-run annihilation of Royal Challengers Bangalore is right up there, not just for the margin of victory, but more so for the moments it sprouted along the way. It was a match where Warner and Bairstow brought up their third consecutive 100-run stand - a feat unmatched in the tournament's history. They even went on to break the record of the highest IPL opening partnership, which stood at 184. In between, when Bairstow raced to his hundred, Warner had ran across for a big hug, putting the England-Australia rivalry to shame. And then the left-hander went on to complete a hundred of his own.

A total of 231 was daunting enough, before Mohammad Nabi scythed through the RCB top-order with extraordinary figures of 4/11. This was peak Sunrisers, not just with the performance, but also in the culture they'd cultivated in the dressing room.

On a scale of 1 to 10...

Auction and retention strategy: 6/10

Sunrisers are a team that's always been strong on bowling, the core of which they were smart to retain. And they continued to be a decent bowling side throughout this tournament as well, even though a couple of the bowlers battled poor form during some phases. It's their batting, however, that was cause for concern when Warner and Bairstow failed, and subsequently when they left.

The trade with Delhi Capitals, wherein they got Vijay, Shahbaz Nadeem and Abhishek, in exchange for Shikhar Dhawan probably ended up favouring Delhi with Dhawan being among the top run-getters of the season. What the Sunrisers would've hoped for is for Vijay to shore up their middle-order, which he was unable to do.

Sunrisers retained 17 players ahead of this season, only behind Chennai Super Kings for the highest number of retentions. But in trying to go with the same core, they probably missed out on opportunities elsewhere. The faith shown in someone like a Yusuf Pathan, or a Deepak Hooda, didn't pay off and cost them big time at crucial junctures.

Their three picks at the auctions - Bairstow, Martin Guptill and Wriddhiman Saha - were exclusively for the opening batsman's role, which again showed a lack of foresight and understanding about the middle-order cracks.

Batting output: 6.5/10

Three batsmen carried the whole team. With 692 and 445 runs respectively, Warner and Bairstow were brilliant. Manish Pandey picked up his game later on to accumulate 344 runs as well. But that was it.

Strategically, Sunrisers probably missed a trick by not slotting Williamson right at the top of the order once Bairstow left the squad. Instead, the captain opted to sort out the middle-order woes by batting at No. 4, which only proved counter-productive especially during a period where he was coming back from injury.

Bowling prowess: 6.5/10

It has traditionally been an area of strength for the Sunrisers Hyderabad, but this wasn't a season without hiccups. Andre Russell's blitzkrieg in their very first match must have dented the confidence of some of their bowlers, if not shattered it altogether. And they took some time getting back to rhythm. Rashid led the way, as expected, with 17 wickets at an economy of 6.28, and his compatriot Nabi was used in effective ways as well. Bhuvneshwar Kumar got it back together nicely too, coming close to finding his mojo as the tournament went on. And Khaleel Ahmed, with 19 wickets from nine matches, was brilliant as a wicket-taker, if not a run-stopper.

But a major difference from last season was Kaul, who went at around 9 in the 7 matches he played before being left out. Sandeep and Thampi couldn't really make a big impact either.

Overall performance: 6.5/10

Sunrisers have been one of the most consistent teams in the last four years, and were expected to make the play-offs again - which they did, but the way they tapered off towards the end was largely disappointing and exposed the lack of depth in the squad. "To qualify with six wins, it doesn't look pretty," Williamson said after the loss to Delhi Capitals which sent them crashing out of the tournament. It was a statement that reflected the general sentiment.

Is 2019 an improvement on 2018?

Not at all. Quite the opposite in fact. This season has been a bit of a backward step for Sunrisers. In almost all areas, they were short of what they had produced last season where they finished as the runner-ups. It went to the extent that without Warner and Bairstow, they were seen as underdogs in the playoffs.

What next then?

There's no reason to be alarmingly worried about the dip in results. While the middle-order has been exposed as a big area of concern, it's not something that can't be fixed with a couple of smart buys, especially given how good the top three have been. Pathan, though, faces an uncertain future after he fell out of favour with the management over the course of a horrendous season.

The bowling wasn't as good as last year, where they regularly defended par and sub-par scores, but they remained decent throughout the competition. So the core still looks strong for Sunrisers, even though there's some polishing required, and maybe some reinforcements.

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