Ahead of the 2019 Indian Premier League season, at the auction, Ruturaj Gaikwad had just played five T20s in his career, scoring 131 runs, at a strike-rate of 137.9 and his base price was at Rs 20 lakhs. No franchise other than Chennai Super Kings were any bit interested and thus at base price, CSK secured a player for the future.
It wasn’t until 2020 that he made his debut and it wasn’t until October 2 (Saturday) that he registered his first century in the shortest format. And when he did make his debut, against the Rajasthan Royals, his innings lasted one ball, where he became a villain.
It took one ball, one day after he recovered from COVID-19 to suffer a distasteful start to his IPL career. And in the subsequent game, he scored a ten-ball five, batting at No.4. In the shortest format, it takes just two games to decide one’s fate. Incidentally, his run-out in the second game was a mix-up with Faf du Plessis.
His decorated comeback lasted exactly as his first life, a five-ball duck. Now that’s exactly where franchises fold the cards, calling it quit. Chennai Super Kings and MS Dhoni, being the ice-calm poker star didn’t fold the cards, instead went all out.
Three innings and 199 runs later, Gaikwad’s hiccups were over, life in Chennai was suddenly glorious but that didn’t mean CSK qualified into the playoffs. Tough season brings out the best in a player and thus Gaikwad’s arrival was announced: loud and clear.
“[Gaikwad] Looks like a young Kohli doesn't he? What stands out for me is that he stands up to pressure. That's the quality you look for in young players to see if they get to the next level,” said Faf du Plessis after CSK’s last league clash against Punjab in 2020.
The comparison with Virat Kohli might have been a tad much but his performance in the 2021 edition has more than enough reasons to suggest that the expectations were worth it. Since the glorious days of the 2011 IPL, Chennai have not had a prolific Indian opener at the top of the order. A major part of CSK’s prolific run in 2010 and 11 – Murali Vijay, 892 runs across two seasons, averaging 31, at a strike-rate of nearly 140.
April 10, 2021: The three-time champions walk out to bat first against the 2020 IPL finalists Delhi Capitals. All eyes are on Gaikwad-Faf to continue their glorious tale. 7-1, 7-2, and Chennai found themselves back to the drawing board. Faf scored a duck and Gaikwad, just five runs. Suddenly, their terrible season from 2020 sprung right in front of their eyes.
And when Chennai took on Rajasthan, ironically enough, Gaikwad’s form came under the scanner for the nth time in his short IPL career. But CSK’s head coach Stephen Fleming was having none of this, absolutely none of this talk.
“Ya, Robin Uthappa is waiting. But Ruturaj Gaikwad earned a bit of time with the way he played last season. You know our philosophy. We give players a good amount of chances in what they are trying to do. We will continue to back him,” Fleming expressed, clear as daylight.
All he could get in the three games was 20 runs. The disappointment was only unidirectional. Gaikwad walked back shaking his head. He expressed negative emotion for the first time in a long span. As he trudged back, it felt like he had sworn to himself that he would not fail again in the season, having only struck at a strike-rate of 62.50, 31.25 and 76.92, in that order. CSK had won the game but there was only one day in between that clash and the next one – against KKR.
Pat Cummins, Varun Chakravarthy, Sunil Narine – KKR had quite a bowling unit, which had both experience and wizardry wrapped in the jersey. But that night was known for Gaikwad-Faf, that night was known for how Chennai made a mockery of the rich bowling attack. If anyone asks you on how Chennai functions as a franchise, point that game to them.
Gaikwad scored a stunning 42-ball 64 and then began a run that has mesmerized world cricket. For he wasn’t just consistent, he was consistently aggressive, he constantly oozes class. He kept reminding everyone that cricket can still be played without those chunky arms and big bat swings. Wits, gaps and bat swing were still alive. Class was pretty much alive and cricket was back to rejoicing in pure timing and vision.
64, 33, 75 and 4 – Gaikwad’s four consecutive scores were rhythmic. His strike-rate was always 100 or above. In that 75 against Sunrisers Hyderabad, it even saw a soaring 170.45 but the inning was laden with pure class. It was like he was the best of two worlds – Kohli’s wrists and Rohit’s backfoot play. Against spinners, he was the perfect template available out there, with a stance that screams world-class.
Aesthetic, therapeutic, how the heck does he do it from game to game, wondered a lot of people. The answer as always wasn’t just talent or hard-work alone, it was all about the trust, one that made him the player he is. Chennai had their worst season in 2020 yet once Gaikwad got going, they were never going to drop him.
Reaching the unreachable
At 24/4, the Men in Yellow found themselves in a pit against Mumbai, their arch-rivals. The backbone – CSK’s mainstays – were back to the hut. There was Ravindra Jadeja, CSK’s No.7 and the Maharashtrian opener at the crease. Mumbai had Jasprit Bumrah, Trent Boult, Adam Milne and Rahul Chahar.
And yet, in the 20th over of the innings, resembling the stance of a hockey star, Gaikwad swept Bumrah for a six to finish the innings off. 58 balls, 88 runs, one gutsy knock and two points for Chennai. What more could he achieve, one may surely ask and there isn’t anything wrong in that either. However, his appetite wasn’t full, he wasn't even satisfied with the meal against Mumbai. The warrior-attitude in him kept it going.
In the next three innings, he got 38, 40 and 45, ensuring that Chennai’s winning streak was alive and kicking. Life almost came to a full circle, when the opponent was Rajasthan and the country was the Middle East. It wasn’t Sharjah but it was Abu Dhabi.
Being put to bat first, there were doubts on how the conditions were, Rajasthan were defensive, Chennai were confused. It was a good batting surface but the runs weren’t flowing. At one stage, the right-hander was 30 off 29 deliveries. Rajasthan’s spinners, for once in the tournament, were in fine form. But Gaikwad, being Gaikwad, was simply better.
His acceleration was not new but yet for the nth time, it was dumbfounding. It blew the covers of social media. It kept people wondering what the right-hander could not do, down the ground, over the covers, into the square with some impressive shots. His wagon wheel for once, would suggest that runs were all over the place.
Barring long-on and the point region, Gaikwad had sprayed the ball all over the park in Abu Dhabi. In particular, it was in the long-off region where the 24-year-old made the fullest use, scoring 27 runs off just nine balls. But as the innings progressed and as the Rajasthan pacers were targeting the yorkers, the Punekar went all knees and plenty of screws. Whack, whack and boom. Two of his three sixes were beyond the 100m mark. For a man of his size and nature, it was puzzling but it wasn’t new.
"I think the wicket was holding a bit initially, the fast bowlers were bowling really well. The plan was if I could bat till 13-14 overs, I could capitalise later. I'm looking to just time the ball and hold my shape, I wasn't looking to hit big. We were looking for 160, then I thought 170, then why not 180, and finally we got 190. I timed the ball really well, the short boundary on the leg side meant I knew it was six off the last ball,” Gaikwad said after his century.
Now if you were wondering who the 24-year-old is in actuality and what the fuss is all about – read his quotes yet again. We were looking for 160, then 170, 180 and finally 190. He wasn’t just a talented opener, he wasn’t just a brash in the middle-overs, he wasn’t the tormentor in the death, he always trusted his wisdom.
It was his maiden century in the shortest format, it was a familiar smile on display, it was the best ever season for an Indian opener in Chennai’s jersey across all seasons, yet there wasn’t a big celebration. There wasn’t an overly pumped up joy, it was just pure joy, class and all about that timing.
Some might even call it Chabuk shot in the end but universally everyone put it down to talent. The biggest keyword though, was and always will be: trust.