In the IPL, there is a rather simple way of determining the excitement quotient of an opening pair.
Any partnership that has neutrals hooked to the Television by 7:29 PM, that has them genuinely thrilled by the prospect of watching the powerplay, is a 10/10 when it comes to entertainment.
Think Sachin-Jayasuriya. Or Sehwag-Warner. Or McCullum-Smith. Or Gayle-Kohli. Or Warner-Bairstow.
Neutrals made time to watch these partnerships because of an inherent FOMO. They knew there was always going to be a one-in-two chance of being entertained. And deep down, nobody wanted to miss out on a potential dopamine boost.
Devon Conway and Ruturaj Gaikwad are not that pair, and will probably never be. They, if anything, sit on the other side of the spectrum.
No neutral rushes to watch the first ball of the match after seeing ‘CSK won the toss and opted to bat’. No non-CSK fan postpones or cancels dinner plans so that they could catch the first 30 minutes of the Super Kings’ innings.
Neither Gaikwad nor Conway is ‘explosive’, and that automatically ends up putting a ceiling on their entertainment value as a pair.
But when you can put up numbers like these two have, who honestly cares about watchability and what the neutrals think?
On Tuesday, Conway and Gaikwad put together their sixth 50+ run stand of the season. In turn, they ended up going past the 2021 run tally of the famed Gaikwad-du Plessis stand that many thought would be irreplaceable — in two fewer innings.
Only two opening pairs in IPL’s 15-year history have now scored more runs in a single season but while they’ll not catch Kohli-Faf and never match the sheer exhilaration of Warner and Bairstow, they have the opportunity to do something the other two pairs never did — drive their side to an IPL title.
Considering the way they’ve been going about their business, you’d be brave to bet against them.
CSK is synonymous with stability and that way, the Conway-Gaikwad partnership is a microcosm of what the franchise is all about.
On Tuesday, the pair registered its joint third-highest partnership of the season but, more importantly, the 87 marked the ninth consecutive instance in the season of Conway and Gaikwad putting together 30 or more runs for the first wicket.
After a rough start, crossing the 20-run mark only once in the first five innings of the season, Conway and Gaikwad’s last nine scores as an opening pair read 87, 141, 31, 32, 46, 86, 42, 73 & 87.
In a volatile, unpredictable format like T20s, this is the consistency that is unprecedented. And it is this durability and dependability up top provided by the pair that has proven to be the foundation of CSK’s success with the bat this season.
Flat or sticky wicket, bat first or bat second, home or away, it hasn’t mattered. Conway and Gaikwad have always provided the side with a guaranteed platform. It has been one of the major reasons why the template of middle-order batters going hell for leather, not concerned about wicket preservation, has worked for the Super Kings.
On Tuesday at Chepauk, we witnessed the said template at its full glory.
Batting first against the best chasing side in the competition, CSK needed a score comfortably above par, even on a dry wicket, to have the upper hand.
It was only ten days ago that CSK had goofed up with the bat on a similar wicket, against KKR, so they knew that they could ill-afford a middling outing.
What was imperative, then, was to have a good platform, something they did not have in the KKR encounter. There, the openers added 31, but the side was soon reduced to 72/5 on the back of a collapse. A fine Shivam Dube knock took CSK to 144, but the target was knocked off rather comfortably by the Knight Riders.
The good start almost did not happen, and CSK were almost off to the worst start imaginable.
On just the ninth ball of the match, Darshan Nalkande outfoxed Gaikwad with a cutter, and in just his third ball of the tournament, the 24-year-old scalped a huge wicket.
Or so he, and a million others, thought.
Just as Gaikwad was making his way to the pavilion, however, the dreaded siren went off. The wicket turned into a free hit, and off the next ball, Gaikwad clobbered a six that changed the complexion of the match.
Gaikwad went on to score 60, stitching together an 87-run opening stand with Conway, and CSK eventually posted 172.
The Super Kings’ middle-order did an outstanding job, with Rahane, Rayudu, Jadeja, Dhoni and Moeen Ali, between them, adding 66 off just 41 balls, but it was only when GT batted that you realized the enormity of the task Gaikwad and Conway had done.
On the night, the Titans had a batting line-up that batted deeper and was more stacked than that of CSK’s. They had more firepower and at least as many in-form players.
None of it mattered, though, for on a dry wicket that started turning viciously with time, GT’s big hitters could do little without a platform to launch. Shubman Gill (42 off 38) dug in, but for the longest time, it was only him. None of Saha, Pandya and Shanaka were able to bat through and stabilize the innings as the CSK openers did, and that ultimately led to the visitors’ downfall.
Rashid Khan gave it all like he did versus Mumbai, but it was too little too late.
Among other things, the ability of Conway and Gaikwad to assess conditions and bat as per the situation demands stands out.
On Tuesday at Chepauk, on an extremely challenging wicket, they came to the realization that stability was the need of the hour, but on a true surface like the Eden, for instance, the duo added 73 runs off the 7.3 overs they were together, throwing caution to the wind in order to maximize the total.
At the Chinnaswamy, Conway, a traditional ‘anchor’ whose overall season strike rate is 137.1, struck at 184.4. Meanwhile, 43% of Gaikwad’s knocks this season have come at a SR over 158.00.
The above numbers indicate that these are two dynamic batters, but the reason for them being extremely successful and consistent as a partnership is the understanding; the mid-inning role reversals.
Gaikwad has largely been the ‘aggressor’ in this partnership this season, and it was he who took the attack to GT as Conway struggled for rhythm.
But in multiple other clashes this season, Conway has taken charge while Gaikwad has played second fiddle. Case in point the game against SRH at Chepauk — Conway was 40* off 24 after the powerplay while Gaikwad was 18 (12) — or even the DC clash a few days ago, where Conway was 28 (15) after the powerplay as compared to Gaikwad, who was 22 off 21 balls.
It’s helped CSK’s case that Gaikwad isn’t having to do all the heavy-lifting against spin like he did while batting with du Plessis two seasons ago. Conway, this season, is striking at nearly 140 against spinners overall, and at 137.8 in the middle overs.
It is this assurance Conway provides as an all-around package that’s emboldened Gaikwad to take more risks and be more aggressive. 2023 is, by some distance, Gaikwad’s best season in the powerplay, both in terms of average (80) and strike rate (144.8).
Conway and Gaikwad, then, might never put bums on seats. But they are delivering wins, and CSK fans would happily take a relatively ‘non-entertaining’ opening pair if the upshot is that they end up going all the way.