Two games. Two emphatic victories. There's a heck of a long way yet to go in IPL 2016, but I'm already confident that we'll be seeing Gujarat Lions in the final on 29 May.
The early evidence is that they are a well-balanced, experienced and formidable combination. They have depth in batting; options in bowling, and are very well led.
The team may be new, but the players aren't. These guys have been around the block a few times, and not only know the streets well, but know plenty of short cuts too. And they don't get phased when they come across the occasional 'road closed' sign and have to make a detour. They haven't yet needed to look at the map to check which way they are going.
Pre-match analysis from a range of experts suggested that their opponents in Rajkot were the superior outfit. The Rising Pune Supergiants may have looked stronger on paper; but paper can be easily folded up and pocketed - and the Lions did just that to their visitors on Thursday.
The informed view was that the sides were well-matched in batting strength, but that the Supergiants had the better bowling. The end-of-match scorecard revealed otherwise.
Which is not to say that the pundits were wrong. The basis for Suresh Raina's side's victory was the simplest of all reasons - they played better cricket. And of the two disciplines of the game, it was the bowling - supposedly their weaker facet - that was the biggest difference between the two sides. They may not have had the better bowlers; nonetheless they bowled better.
As they did in their opening match, Raina's men didn't panic when the opposition got away to a good start and seemed set for a big score. With 76 on the board for only one wicket after eight overs - and Faf du Plessis and Kevin Pietersen together at the wicket - Supergiants would've been looking to post something around the two hundred mark. Certainly, their batting firepower promised a few pyrotechnics to come. But they didn't emerge. Through intelligent captaincy, and thoughtful use of his bowlers, the Lions skipper simply 'Raina'd' in the scoring.
Suresh Raina has plenty of options. While the team has thus far resisted selecting its premier strike bowler, Dale Steyn, it has included half-a-dozen exponents capable of taking pace off the ball. On Thursday night they made three changes, most notably resting Pradeep Sangwan and Sarabjit Ladda in favour of Shadab Jakati and Pravin Tambe.
I recently described Praveen Kumar as a 'wily old pro'. On commentary he was referred to as 'foxy'. Kumar is only 29 - but it's a befitting description. This time, Raina only needed him for two overs, entrusting full allotments to both slow-left-armer Jakati, who is 35, and leg-spinner Tambe, who is 44 - a combined age of 79. When you add the cunning of Dwayne Bravo (described by Rameez Raja as being 'at his foxy best' - ironically in an over that went for 16), the crafty James Faulkner, and the guileful Jadeja you have quite a vulpine attack. I had to look up the collective noun for a group of foxes - it is a 'skulk', or a 'leash'. Well, these foxes, these Lions, certainly didn't skulk - although the fielding at times was a bit sloppy, but never slack. And Raina never let the opposition batsmen totally off the leash.
The partnership of Du Plessis and Pietersen should have been the match-winning one. But the calmness of the fielding skipper, and the excellence of the tight bowling stopped it from being so. The pair scored singles with ease. And the scoreboard ticked over steadily - but never raced. It always felt as though they were just off the necessary pace - and the stand was broken at just the moment when they were intending to break the shackles.
Once again it was Bravo. He induced KP to flat-footedly chop onto his stumps a ball that was actually a dipping full-toss. But he was totally undone in the flight - early on the ball, over-reaching and completely mis-timing. This was the fourteenth over of the innings - and it only produced two runs.
Between the 8th and 19th over, the Supergiants only amassed 67 runs - hardly sufficient; and in the latter part of the innings, even scoring at a run-a ball seemed beyond them. The low point came in the 19th over when Mitch Marsh swiped ungainly at a succession of flat, left-arm slow mediums from Jadeja: swipe! - miss; swipe - two runs; swipe!! - miss; swipe!!! - clean bowled. It was a lot of effort for very little reward, and the Australian departed for a mere seven runs off eleven balls at the most crucial of times.
That they managed to pass both 150 and 160 was thanks to the brilliance of MS Dhoni. Before the final over, he'd only faced four balls, despite coming out to bat in the sixteenth over.
He looked angry with the below-par efforts of his team-mates, and was determined to commandeer the strike in the last over - even if it meant sacrificing a partner or two to a run out. He took twenty runs off Bravo, possibly the best 'death' bowl in the world. But then Dhoni can lay claims to being the best 'death' batsman. He stomped off, job done, having proven his point.
It became apparent fairly quickly that this still wasn't enough. On Monday, the early dismissal of Brendon McCullum raised the Kings XI Punjab's hopes. The Supergiants didn't even get that glimmer. McCullum and Aaron Finch thumped the bowling to all parts with nonchalance, and were only slowed down, temporarily, by the quality of R Ashwin.
But the dismissals of Finch for fifty - his second already of the tournament - and McCullum for 49, didn't threaten the result. The skipper calmly accumulated runs at the required run-rate without fuss, and Bravo, promoted to number four, effectively ended the match ahead of schedule with a succession of plundering 'inside-out' drives over the off-side ring-field.
The game finished with a wide from RP Singh - and was further evidence of the difference between the two sides. Supergiants conceded fifteen extras, including seven wides and a no-ball; while the Lions only allowed two - one leg-bye, one bye.
This was an efficient, and very effective performance. I expect more of the same.
First Published On : Apr 15, 2016 14:35 IST