For a brief moment, it felt like the first fixture between these two sides in Sharjah last year. Then, Rahul Tewatia brought Rajasthan home out of nowhere. Tonight, Sanju Samson almost repeated the feat. Only difference being that then, Tewatia built on a platform that Samson laid for him. Tonight, Samson did it all by himself with a little help from a brief effervescence of Jos Buttler and Riyan Parag.
A pitch that saw 438 runs in 40 overs has to be a bowler’s grave. But, if most of those runs came from players like KL Rahul and Samson, it was also an evening filled with an overdose of eye-pleasing strokes, leaving the witnesses in awe of the talent of the two men leading the two sides.
It was also a night of Chetan Sakariya who stood out with a spell of 3/31 on a bowler’s graveyard. Adding muscle to the finesse was Deepak Hooda who clubbed a 20-ball fifty filled with six sixes which ensured Punjab reached a total that ultimately proved to be only four runs short of what Rajasthan could manage.
But on something more important which the scorecard might not reflect, the bowlers might not have gone through the nightmare had the fielders taken their catches. Both Rahul and Samson had their catches dropped on 16 and 12 respectively and went on to score 210 of the total runs scored in this game.
The way PBKS began, it never felt like a 200-run wicket. The left-arm pacers – Sakariya and Mustafizur Rahman swung the new ball. As is usually the case, Mayank Agarwal was almost too carefree early on and gave Sakariya his maiden IPL wicket via an outside edge. Chris Gayle and Rahul played at around a run-a-ball till the end of the Powerplay.
Last season, Rahul copped serious criticism around his strike rate against spin which was 94.4. Tonight, he used his feet well and threw caution to the wind as soon as Shreyas Gopal came on. Stokes bowled only one over which resulted in Gayle opening his shoulders. He then laid into Tewatia before Parag got him to mistime one to long-on.
Rahul immediately took charge hitting his first six of the night to Tewatia over his head in the 10th over. He repeated the same to Shivam Dube in the 12th to reach his half-century in 30 balls. But, that over saw something more spectacular than Rahul’s stylish hit.
When Hooda walked out to bat ahead of Nicholas Pooran in the 10th, there were question marks over the decision. Being eight off seven, the doubts seemed valid. Then something clicked inside Hooda. He unleashed his inner beast. Hooda bludgeoned both Dube in the 12th and Gopal in the 13th to sixes over cover and to mid-wicket. Against Gopal, he went a step ahead to hit him for a third six in the over, this one over the bowler’s head. Five sixes in space of seven balls. He hit Chris Morris for his sixth six of the night in the 16th to complete a 20-ball fifty.
While Morris took both Hooda and Pooran (off a first-ball duck) in the 18th over, Rahul continued in his nonchalant style, effortlessly hitting two sixes via a scoop and a pull in the same over. Sakariya came back to bowl an excellent 20th over. Though Rahul creamed the first ball past extra cover for a four, the over cost only five runs and saw two wickets, including that of Rahul. In a 50-ball 91 run knock, Rahul scored at a strike rate of 180+ against both pace and spin, alleviating any concerns one might have about his approach against spin.
When it was Rajasthan’s turn to bat, things went bleak very soon. Stokes top-edged Mohammed Shami in the first over. Coming back after two years on the bench, Manan Vohra looked as good as anyone while he lasted. An excellent reflex catch by Arshdeep Sigh cut his stay short in the fourth over, the same in which Rahul put down Samson.
Jhye Richardson went for 13 in his debut over. Riley Meredith faced a harsher baptism. Buttler took a liking to his pace and length to caress four consecutive fours in the fifth over. Richardson came back to fox Buttler with a yorker delivered at a slower pace by running his fingers over the ball.
“I think the second part of the innings was the best I ever played, took my time and respected the bowlers, whereas in the first part I was not timing it very well”, said Samson after the match. By the half way mark of the innings, Samson was on 41 off 30 balls. Rajasthan needed 127 in the last 10. With the foreign firepower back in the shed and not much to come later, the battle seemed uphill. It was then Samson who put on a show to remember.
Rajasthan’s innings got momentum through a cameo by Riyan Parag. After a middling 15-ball 23 from Dube, Parag took first strike on the last ball of the 13th over. He hit the first two balls he faced for a four and six without breaking a sweat.
With Rajasthan needing 81 in the last six, Samson dug into Richardson whipping his missed yorker for a six over midwicket in a 13-run 15th over. He then hit Murugan Ashwin over his head for a six in the next over. Parag followed up with two sixes to the wide long-off region to convert it into a 20-run over. The tables had turned.
Rahul then turned back to his senior-most bowler – Shami – even when it was his last over. Testing Parag with short balls, Shami obliged with an eight-run over that also saw the back of Parag. Samson then changed the tide again. A slow ball, a missed yorker and a low full toss from Richardson gave Samson a four, six and four to make him the first captain to score a hundred on captaincy debut. Rajasthan needed 21 off 12.
Meredith then revived himself in what was the match-defining over. Even when Samson picked him over midwicket for a six, the 19th over caused Rajasthan only eight runs. With 13 needed off six, Arshdeep kept his nerve to keep Rajasthan down to only two runs in the first three balls of the 20th. Samson then smoked him over long-off to turn the odds in favour of Rajasthan again.
In what turned out to be a questionable yet acceptable move, Samson refused a single off the next ball that would have had Morris on the strike for the last ball. Playing as if his whole bat is just one big sweet spot, the only mistimed lofted stroke that Samson played was on the last ball of the innings and with Rajasthan five runs adrift. The fielder lurking at sweeper cover made no mistake as Punjab won a nail-biting encounter.
From being 41 off 30 balls, Samson went to score 78 off his next 33. More importantly, he nullified the Aussie pace threat, scoring 59 runs off 22 balls against them. If only it was good enough to see his side through.