What does “entertainment” mean, when the context is cricket?
Or, put differently, how many times can you watch pure muscle powering big bats that propel small balls out of small grounds without getting bored? Tom Cruise embarking on yet another Mission Impossible might thrill, but you also need the slow burn thrill of a Hitchcock film where “nothing much happens” but you can’t look away for a minute.
Nothing much happened in the first quarter of the Mohali fixture today that pitted the home side against SRH – and yet you couldn’t look away for a minute. Both teams went in dead level on points; both went in with problems they had to solve; both went in needing a win.
To really set up the contest, Kings XI Punjab decided to bowl first on winning the toss – which is to say, a team with the worst economy rate in powerplays (9.4 RPO) decided to bowl first against the team with the best strike rate in powerplays (9.43).
Ravi Ashwin has been growing as a captain and on the day, he didn’t put a foot wrong, starting with team selection. He opted to bring in the Afghan offie Mujeeb-ur-Rahman and the seam bowler Ankit Rajpoot on a wicket which, with a good dusting of green and moisture from recent rains, promised movement both in the air and off the wicket.
Ashwin backed his bowlers with a field set to give nothing away – four on the off, two on the off, every one of them well inside the circle to stop quick singles against the SRH opening combination of Warner and Bairstow who, for all their big-hitting, have almost fetishized the art of running between wickets.
A field like that is tailormade for power-packed batsmen – there is acres of room outside the circle for even mishits to land safe – the trick to making it work lay in bowling the right lengths.
Tight bowling by the opening pair of Rajpoot and Mujeeb backed by the parsimonious field put the squeeze on the two usually dynamic openers – and Bairstow cracked, trying to flick a quick, flat off spinner from Mujeeb on the on but failing to keep it down. Ashwin, whose fielding seems to have risen a notch or three thanks to the responsibility of having to lead, dived headlong forward at mid-on to hold.
SRH managed a mere 4.5 in the powerplay overs, thanks to Ashwin’s use of Rajpoot (six runs in two overs), Mujeeb (1 run and wicket in his first over), and Shami (four runs in two overs).
Any good story needs an antagonist to go with the protagonist – and here, SRH had David Warner. Denied, by the movement off the pitch, the freedom to set himself and go big, deprived of the support of his boisterous partner Bairstow, Warner dug deep and batted ugly, focussing on survival, turning over the ones and the occasional twos to keep the board ticking, not allowing either the pressure of a near-static scoreboard or the rapid appearances and disappearances of partners Vijay Shankar and Mohammad Nabi at the other end to fluster him.
Warner scored at an unusual 50% for the major part of his innings. There were just two fours in the first ten overs; Warner got only one of those; he got his first six of the match in the 16th over (the stroke finally got him to 100% strike rate).
92/3 after 15 wasn’t very promising – particularly against a side that had Chris Gayle and KL Rahul at the top of the order. More so when you consider that KXIP has an enviable record – its bowlers send down more yorkers at the death than any other side in the competition.
Rajpoot capped an impressive bowling performance with just 8 conceded in the 18th over; Sam Curran gave away just 11 despite Warner’s best efforts to get him away, and Shami seemed set to shut it down when his first ball of the 20th accounted for Manish Pandey, his next was a dot and his third produce a single that got Warner off strike. But then Deepak Hooda, yet to face a ball, stepped up to send the 4th and 5th, both Yorkers, to the fine leg and straight boundaries and then nail a low full toss over the long off boundary to take SRH to a level 150/4 after 20 – a score considerably healthier than looked possible heading into the death, but given the conditions, particularly the intensifying dew, at least a good 25-30 short.
KXIP in its last match had made a complete meal of its chase against CSK – the kind of thing that can weigh tons on a team setting out on a tricky chase. Gayle started off like a rocket, and that produced a passage of play that makes you, as an observer, wonder what the captain was thinking, what he had seen to decide as he did. Last year, when these teams met, Gayle had destroyed Rashid Khan – so it was a surprise when Bhuvi Kumar brought him on for the third over. Doubly so because it has been Nabi, not Khan, who bowls in the powerplay. Whatever the thinking was, it was spot on – Gayle smacked the first ball of Khan’s over and Deepak Hooda, racing to his right from a wider position, slid under the ball as it was dying on him, and held a beauty.
That early jolt aside, KXIP bossed the chase. The dew hampered the spinners, with neither of the Afghan aces being able to do much more than land on length. Dew has two effects that work in tandem to make bowlers’ lives miserable: One, it makes the ball as hard to hold as a cake of soap; two, it makes the ball skid off the deck, which means it comes on nicely to the bat. (Oh, and it makes catching difficult – as Yusuf Pathan, who made an absolute meal of an Agarwal skier in the 16th over). Ashwin, at the toss, said he wanted to chase because the dew was going to make life hell for the side bowling last – and so it proved.
KL Rahul, who averages 53-plus when chasing, worked his way into his innings and once set, opened out into the sort of easy strokeplay that makes him delightful to watch when he is on song, and frustrating to the max when he throws it away. Here, he didn’t. With good friend Mayank Agarwal in prime touch at the other end, Rahul paced the innings to a nicety, mixing judicious strike rotation with opportunistic big hits when bowlers erred in control.
It was for the most part an antithesis to the first half of the match – if that was tense, this was largely a calm cruise; if that was a battle of batsmen against the odds, the chase was a case of letting bowlers handling a dew-soaked ball make the mistakes that could be cashed at the bank.
KXIP, with nine wickets in hand, needed 40 from the last five overs. Done and dusted, you would have thought – but this IPL season has been known for twists in the tale, and KXIP provided the latest version when Mayank (55 off 43 with three fours and three sixes) went trying a big hit off Sandeep Sharma in the 18th over; and David Miller lofted a catch down long off’s throat off the last ball of the same over. Then Siddarth Kaul produced the perfect 19th over – five balls that couldn’t be taken for more than a single each, then the wicket of Mandeep Singh holing out to long off in the last ball.
11 runs needed off the last ball; a brain fade that saw Rahul cross over on that catch and thus be off strike. Mohd Nabi took the wet ball for the last over. 2-2-1 to Sam Curran and then the fairytale finish – Rahul, carrying his bat, smacks Nabi straight back for four to reduce the ask to two off two. Dew had the last laugh – David Warner, of all fielders, slipped trying to get to an on drive, the single that was on became two, and the hosts won by a single ball to go top of the table.
I guess KXIP thought it was all too tame, the way it was going so they decided to inject what, in movie terminology, is called a false climax.
In the 4th over, when Mohammed Shami gave away just a run, SRH’s win % dropped by 8, which was their highest dip in the match. However, when Hooda smashed 14 runs off the final three deliveries of the SRH innings, their win% increased to 45% at the innings break.
In the 11th over of KXIP’s innings, Siddarth Kaul conceded 17 runs, which increased their win% by 19. However, when Agarwal and David Miller dismissed in the 18th over, their win% dropped by 26%, which was their highest dip in the entire match. However, despite losing Mandeep Singh in the last ball of the 19th over, KXIP eventually got home with one ball to spare.
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