The IPL has been a little flatter this year. The usual bubbly, exuberant cricket spectacle has not been as compelling or intoxicating as in previous editions. Some have even murmured that the spell was rubbing off.
Don't believe a word of it. Cricket always finds a way — from the longest to the shortest format — to remind us why we love it so much. Games come along from time to time which put you on the edge of your seat, take you to the limit of excitement, and then leave you breathless. Delhi Daredevils versus Gujarat Lions on Wednesday night was one such.
It had the right ingredients for a start: Two sides of pedigree, pushing for this year's title, knowing they are genuine challengers for it; and despite a loss each, both having gained enough confidence to believe this could be their year. What was on offer had the potential for an enticing, entertaining encounter. What we got was an absolute treat.
Ahead of the game, Suresh Raina's team was looking like a genuinely impressive unit. After some muddled thinking in their first few games regarding team selection, the Lions seemed to have at last hit upon the right combination: With Dwayne Smith replacing James Faulkner, and slow left-armer Shadab Jakati included in favour of the superfluous middle-order batting of Akshdeep Nath. It was now a well-balanced XI, providing the skipper with both batting depth and bowling options.
Sadly, all this was immediately undone by the injury to Aaron Finch, and a return to foggy thought processes in coping with the change. With the loss of a batsman, the Lions needed to bring in their best alike replacement. They got confused when they realised this was all-rounder James Faulkner. Now they had seven bowlers. This was not a problem, but they turned it into one. They left out Jakati again, and went back to the tried-and-failed tactic of an extra, unnecessary batsman, this time Ishan Kishan, whose 8-ball-11 in the Lions' first game of the tournament was a lot worse in reality that it looks on the scorebook. The switch could have cost them this game.
Maybe the Lions were worried of carrying too many slow bowlers with all the dew around. It didn't seem to worry the Daredevils though, who still had four. Of course, Kishan is a better fielder than Jakati, but if he is being picked for his superior fielding, then bat him at No 8 — not at No 6, ahead of superior and vastly more experienced batsmen like Faulkner and Dwayne Bravo.
Having lost the toss and, naturally, been inserted, Lions' openers Smith and Brendon McCullum were fast out of the blocks, and sprinted to 50 inside four overs — the fastest team half-century thus far this season. The batting was superb and the bowling woeful. McCullum was the first to a 50, off 26 balls; Smith followed shortly afterwards and was faster by one ball.
The Lions mauled the Delhi 'Dreadfuls' until the halfway point, 110-0 after 10 overs. It's hard to believe that they just added 62 for six in the next 10 overs, and that included an excellent and inventive 22 from 13 balls from Faulkner, batting two places below Kishan (2 off 6 balls). The Lions had promised so much, and fallen so well short.
The below-par scoring continued upon the resumption; excellent opening spells from both Praveen Kumar and Dhawal Kulkarni reduced the Daredevils to 22-3 after six overs, the worst return from the PowerPlay in the competition this year. Compare that to the Lions' 71-0.
So, how on earth did this match still end with a difference of only a single run between the two sides? Such is the joy of cricket, and that is an indicator of a truly fluctuating game.
The fact that Raina and his Lions came out on the right side of that solitary run may well be the difference between a place in the final in a few weeks time and having to qualify. We shall see. But the skipper and his selectors still have to learn the lessons we thought they'd absorbed in previous games.
The reason the Daredevils got as close as they did was down almost entirely to one colossal innings of the most fantastic, thrilling hitting. But the Lions would have learned nothing if they don't look at themselves closely. Even armed with an able, varied attack, Raina managed to make a succession of bizarre bowling changes and colossal blunders in the field after the game had seemed all but won.
I had been very impressed by Raina's leadership. Until now. Even in the defeat to Sunrisers Hyderabad, I thought he'd only given himself a bowl when he knew all hope was already lost — as an affectation, as a self-indulgent whim. But he did it again today. To lose one match through bowling oneself may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose two looks like carelessness.
Raina allowed the Daredevils to get back into the game when he could easily have closed it down. With the resources at his disposal, he should not be bowling himself. Nor Smith, except in an emergency. And just the fact that Faulkner returned did not mean he had to give him a go either — his bowling has lately fallen to bits.
When this neglect had given the opposition a small window of opportunity, Raina belatedly turned to his frontline spinners at a time when outright assault was the only way batsmen were going to respond. They should have operated much, much earlier. Eighty-six runs came in six overs without a wicket falling. The batting was breathtaking — but the calamity was cultivated by crass captaincy.
Just in time, Raina returned to his trusted seamers — and they won him the match. Kulkarni bowled a tight final over of his spell, and Kumar, delivering the game's penultimate over, was a model of expert precision and only allowed four runs to be squeezed off him. Entrusted with the last over, Bravo produced the goods, finding his range sufficiently not to be hit to the boundary more than once, although the outfielding was bad enough to nearly undermine his good work.
The Lions march on, and have now won five games, two of which came despite playing some very poor cricket at times. But that is one of cricket's great ironies. It is a team game, and the best combined efforts usually overcome a single great performance. This game contained a performance that was one of the best I have ever seen — but it came from a Delhi Daredevils player, and my focus is the Gujarart Lions — so I've not mentioned him. I urge you to read the complementary reports of this match on the pages of Firstpost elsewhere to relive it; and if you missed it, check out the highlights when you've finished reading.
It was absolutely amazing.