What ails Karun Nair? The Delhi Daredevils batsman’s slump is hurting his team’s chances

Zenia D'Cunha

In the end, Delhi Daredevils lost on the penultimate ball of the match, as Kolkata Knight Riders’ Manish Pandey and Sunil Narine scampered for two runs. Needing nine off the last over in a chase of 169, Delhi brought that equation down to eight off three, before Manish Pandely’s gutsy six made it two off two.

It was as narrow a margin as it gets in tense T20 matches, which are often decided in one over of an innings. In Kolkata’s case, it was Pandey’s last-over six off Amit Mishra that was the decisive shot. But for Delhi, the match was perhaps lost when they couldn’t put up as commanding a total as they did in the last match against Kings XI Punjab, where Zaheer Khan had elected to, uncharacteristically, defend as well.

Against Punjab, a match they won by 51 runs, Delhi put up 188, thanks to the hard-hitting knocks of Sam Billings at the start and Corey Anderson at the end of the innings. Before that, Delhi scored 205 against Rising Pune Supergiant, after a ton by opener Sanju Samson and a whirlwind death overs assault by Chris Morris, and won by whopping 95-runs.

Against Kolkata on Monday, it was the lack of a few extra runs on board that proved to be match-defining. The openers had set a solid platform once again, reaching 50 in less than five overs. With 38 off 16, Rishabh Pant provided the late push. Where Delhi erred was the middle overs, where the batting momentum was all but lost before Pant’s blitzkrieg. And a large part of this was due to Delhi’s No 3 batsman, Karun Nair, who scored 21 off 27 balls before his dismissal in the 15th over.

The slide began even before the first wicket fell in the seventh over, as spinners Narine and Kuldeep Yadav pegged back the scoring rate. But when Sam Billings was dismissed, it seemed took the momentum with him. Samson fell in the very next over, and Iyer and Nair couldn’t quite score as freely. While Iyer made 27 off 16, it was Nair’s very strange 27-ball 20 that stuck out like a sore thumb.

Karun Nair’s scratchy innings 

Trending

  • Karun Nair hasn’t made a single 30-plus score in 14 innings across all formats since his triple-century against England.       
  • Karun Nair’ scores this IPL: 4, 0, 21 
  • Karun Nair: 21 runs in 27 balls at 4.6 runs per over. Rest of Delhi Daredevils: 147 runs in 93 at 9.48 runs per over.    

These were some of the stats thrown around after Karun Nair. But there is this one stat that is perhaps the most damning of them all.

  • Delhi Daredevils played only 15 dot balls in the first 10 overs of the innings. Nair played out 10 dots, including eight off his last 11 deliveries.      

This one number tells you how much Nair’s innings impacted Delhi’s performance. Strike rate is crucial in T20 cricket, sometimes far more than batting average or even runs scored. With Nair on Monday, it was the other way round, he was determined to stay on crease, even at the cost of runs.

True, he put together a partnership of 43 runs with Iyer, where Iyer scored 26 while Nair got 17. The partnership ended when Iyer was run out after attempting a quick double. While stability was the need of the hour after Delhi lost both their openers, Nair seemed to have dug in, in a way not conducive to T20s. His batting was scratchy, and not at all like the usually steady Nair we have seen. He didn’t try to go for the shots or try to unsettle bowlers by taking the attack to them, even when the scoring rate went down. The fact that eight of the last 11 deliveries he faced were dot balls is an indication of his struggle.

Even his dismissal seemed like Nathan Coulter-Nile was putting him out of his misery. Nair swung across the line, got his front leg out of the way but could not connect and the ball crashed into the stumps. Not a pretty picture. This was in the 15th over, by the 17th, Pant had gone slam bang getting nine and 26 off the next two over after Nair’s wicket. That was exactly the kind of impetus Delhi’s innings needed.

Cause for concern

Nair’s slump in form seems to have started after his triple century against England in Chennai back in December 2016. His unbeaten 303 in only his third Test was a delight to watch, he crafted the innings with flamboyance and finesse, scoring 232 in a day. And his acceleration to score his last 100 runs in only 75 balls was an extraordinary effort. That innings made Nair a household name and, expectedly raised the expectations from the 25-year-old. Perhaps too high.

He has played 14 innings after that, from the India vs Australia Test series to domestic T20 matches for Karnataka and then the IPL. He has not crossed 30 runs in any of them, nor has he looked like the same, complete batsman. That’s a worrying trend. Especially from one of Delhi’s senior-most batsmen.

Last season, Nair was their second highest run-getter with 357 runs. This season, being an international player, he is also the batting leader for a team reliant on domestic batsmen. However, he has not been up to the mark along the likes of Samson, Iyer and Pant. Batting at the pivotal position of No 3 in T20, Nair has the responsibility of being both the anchor while keeping the scoreboard ticking and it’s the second part he was unable to do against Kolkata. In the games against Royal Challengers Bangalore and Kings XI Punjab, he did not spend enough time on crease – scoring four and a duck. In the match against RPS when Delhi scored 205, he did not get a chance to bat as he was pushed down the order when big-hitters were the need of the hour. On Monday, he had the chance to build on his innings after getting his eye in, but fell to the pressure and was ultimately dismissed tamely after costing his team crucial runs.

Delhi’s strange batting order logic

Having said that, some of the blame has to lie at the team management’s feet as well. There was more than one questionable choice in the batting order. A hard-hitting batsman like Rishabh Pant at No 5 doesn’t give him enough overs to play at. And on current form, keeping Pant after Nair and even Iyer, doesn’t serve both the player and the team well. Against Kolkata, sending newcomer Angelo Mathews ahead of the experienced, established death overs specialist Morris was another error, as was evident when the South African made 16 off nine, while the Sri Lankan managed only one from four balls.

The batting order logic is hard to fathom – if you want to gamble on defending in a T20 match, you have to give your bowlers, however talented, a total to play out. Delhi did that against Punjab, and the bowlers were able to pile on the pressure and choke their run chase. Delhi almost pulled it off against Kolkata as well, getting three wickets in the first three overs due in a large part to Zaheer Khan, the captain and the bowler.

But Kolkata’s middle order, unlike Delhi’s, could withstand the pressure and keep the scoring rate moving positively. But for a few more runs, Delhi could have pulled back the match even after the twin assaults of Yusuf Pathan and Manish Pandey, with their bowling depth. This in turns points to just how decisive those dot balls played by Nair were, in the context of the match.

But three IPL innings do not a batsmen break. Karun Nair’s batting prowess hardly needs any reiteration, and he has been a proven performer for Delhi. He just needs to play that one innings which will liberate him from whatever ails his batting.

Is it simply form? In which case this is sure to be a temporary phase. Is it the burden of expectations? Delhi Daredevils have shown a lot of faith in him so far. Is it a mental block? He’s working with one of the finest team managements in the IPL, coach Rahul Dravid, who has seen a lot of Nair, and Zaheer.

Whatever the reason, Nair will have to regain his lost touch fast, not just for the IPL, but if he hopes to play for India again. With the Champions Trophy in June and so many batsmen lined up for a position, a strong IPL showing can be a key to enter the Indian limited overs squad. Till then, the onus is on Delhi Daredevils to figure out their best batting combination and how Nair fits into it.