Within two months of playing their first-ever match in the Indian Premier League, Gujarat Titans – one of the two new teams introduced last year – became champions, breaking the Chennai-Mumbai duopoly that had dominated the IPL since 2017.
Under captain Hardik Pandya, the team excelled in nearly all aspects, riding on their star foreign power and the support of their Indian players to claim the silverware in their debut season.
At the auction table for just the second time, and looking to build on their core while also completing their maximum quota of players, Titans picked seven new players for their title defence. Of them, arguably the biggest name was Kane Williamson, bought for his base price of INR 2 crore.
“We’re very excited to see Kane join us. He has been a superstar of the highest order for a good number of years. I am just talking about his batting right now,” Vikram Solanki, Titans’ director of cricket, tells Wisden India. “In addition to that, he is a wonderful guy, and he brings so much more to a team. We’re really looking forward to him joining us, sharing his experiences, having a calm approach that would be helpful to all our players, young and old.”
“You can ask questions about a player’s form for a period, but for someone who has achieved as much as he has, and what he brings outside the on-field qualities, we look forward.”
The form Solanki mentions is Williamson’s dwindling numbers in T20s of late. Orange Cap in the 2018 season, and one of the finest all-format players of his era, Williamson has, in 50 T20s since the start of 2021, struck at a rate of 113.70. In the last two seasons of IPL, it stands at 103.43. But both Solanki and Ashish Nehra, the head coach, insist that it there’s much more that he brings to the table.
In face, Nehra said that the team would have spent more on him if required, calling it a “privilege” to buy him.
“He is a proven player,” Nehra tells a select group of journalists. “Last two seasons, he had an elbow problem, and didn’t do as well. IPL and T20 is fast paced, team thinking changes. We could have paid even more, because we believe in the player.”
Nehra also believes that Williamson’s presence will help domestic players like Sai Sudarshan – one of GT’s breakout stars last season – who might be vying for a spot in the top three. Nehra was clear Williamson will be a first-choice player, going on to pencil the role of No.3 for him.
Last year, Titans played a batter less than ideal, with Hardik anchoring the innings at three [three innings] and four [12 innings]. It was a change from Hardik’s usual place at five or six in the IPL. Despite a clear anchor in Williamson now, Solanki still wants Pandya to have the flexibility to play anywhere.
“Hardik has developed as a batsman,” Solanki says. “He will play a role that is appropriate at a given time. You can’t pigeonhole the kind of role you want a player of Hardik’s quality to play. He will play according to the situation. The fact that he has taken additional responsibility in captaincy, you have seen him grow in that facet as well.”
Nehra revealed that, with Williamson now at three, Hardik would stay at four.
“At three last season, Pandya batted only once [three times]. Now that Williamson is at three, Pandya is still the No.4. See, IPL is far. So many people come, there are some injury, that’s why we need a squad of 24-25. Don’t think he needs to be a finisher down the order. There is no such thing as finisher. It’s not like opener is not allowed to finish. He can also be a finisher.”
In the bowling department, there were two major additions: Shivam Mavi and Ireland’s Josh Little. An attack that primarily revolves around Rashid Khan and Mohammed Shami, and depleted by the departure of Lockie Ferguson needed fresh reinforcement.
“We just watched him bowl for a good amount of time now,” Solanki said of Little, who took a hat-trick at the T20 World Cup this year, and has the second-most men’s T20I wickets in 2022. “We tracked how he has been playing, and he has had a good amount of success. His ability to swing the ball, he is a left armer, which is an asset in any team these days. He is a good addition to us. The age he is, we see him growing. Ashish Nehra has wisdom that benefits. In his growth, we will see the benefit of the franchise.”
Nehra himself said that with the budget they had, they were lucky to get both Little and Mavi, who turned out to be the highest-priced uncapped player in the auction at INR 6 Cr. “We knew we couldn’t go for Green or Stokes or Curran,” he said frankly.
The price tag of Mavi is an indication of the confidence he still instills, four years after emerging as one of the stars of the U19 World Cup. It’s been a topsy-turvy road since, hindered by a back injury, but Mavi is likely to be given a prominent role at GT.
“Based on the supply and demand in ten teams, he was right up there in the top three bowler,” Nehra said. “Another guy was Mukesh Kumar [who went to Delhi Capitals]. Mavi is a great athlete, upcoming youngster. Where we are right now, if we can help him…if we does well, it will be beneficial for Indian cricket as well.”
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