Sunday afternoons are traditionally times to take things easy, to relax. To sit down in a favourite, comfy armchair, a pot of tea to one side and a few biscuits, and the weekend newspaper in the other. If any energy is to be expended, the limit is probably taking a small stroll, or a brief ride around in the car; not a big journey, just a little pootle. The Gujarat Lions weren't allowed that comfort and luxury this Sunday afternoon - they had to move into top gear if they were going to stay in the fast lane.
But Suresh Raina's vehicle is back on track. They hit a nasty bump last Thursday night, which had for the first time in this year’s IPL journey skidded the Lions off the road. They may end up looking back on that ‘accident’ as a timely intervention from which they’ve learnt the best way to travel to reach their goal.
Despite three wins in four games before Sunday’s match against Royal Challengers Bangalore, the Gujarat Lions had always looked lop-sided – full of bowling options, but short of a batsman in their top-order. They had relied too heavily on the run-scoring of Australian opener Aaron Finch, and had won each game in which he’d made fifty - and lost the won in which he made nought.
After three games, I’d argued on Firstpost for them to make a switch – omitting bowling all-rounder James Faulkner for batting all-rounder Dwayne Smith. They did rest Faulkner in the fourth game – for Dale Steyn. Consequently, the weak batting line-up only mustered 55 runs between them to support skipper Raina’s excellent 75 - and they were hammered by ten-wickets.
The bad experience was useful, because it made them realise they needed more firepower. For this fixture, they juggled their pack, finally brought in Smith for Steyn, and also found room to re-include Shadab Jakati - another daft omission in their thrashing by Sunrisers. He came in for Akshdeep Nath, who has fielded excellently, but not done much with the bat.
For the first time the Lions look balanced. The combination of Jakati, Pravin Tambe and Ravindra Jadeja as a spin trio in the middle overs has been when the Lions bowling has looked at its best, and been in most control.
This made it all the more confusing when Raina didn’t use any of the three’s full quota on Sunday, and reintroduced his opening seamers - who were thoroughly punished by the irresistible Virat Kohli. Raina needs to think a little more carefully about the moments he uses his bowlers, and perhaps be a little braver in his use of slow bowling. Jakarti was a genuine challenge to batsmen on the one occasion Raina opened the bowling with him; while Jadeja was superb when he was given responsibility for bowling in the last quarter of the innings.
Praveen Kumar and Dhawal Kulkarni are an intelligent, if not explosive new-ball pairing – Kumar moves it both in and out nicely; while I believe Kulkarni would be better utilized in the middle overs. And with Dwayne Bravo as the perfect bowling resource for the second half of the innings, Raina has quality and variety in his attack. Indeed, with those six bowlers, he is unlikely to need to call upon Smith for his medium-pacers; and let us hope we don’t see the captain himself having a twirl again as he did the other night.
As it turned out, getting the balance of the side right against RCB with the inclusion of Smith could not have come at a more opportune moment – because they effectively played a batsman short in any case. Finch had to leave the field during the Challengers innings – presumably with a flare-up of his dodgy hamstring – and was not allowed to bat above number seven in the order.
Chasing 180, after the latest superb batting display from the enchanting Kohli, the Lions were desperate for a good start, so the loss of Finch was a big blow – tempered by the availability of Smith to slip seamlessly into the vacated opening position alongside Brendon McCullum. Finch’s were big shoes to fill; indeed Smith seemed to have problems properly filling his own; twice they came off when running, and eventually had to replaced. Dwayne may also have been short of match-practice of late; but he clearly was not short of confidence.
At 33, Smith is slipping into the veteran stage of his career. He announced his retirement from first-class cricket last year (ironically, shortly after taking his career-best bowling figures: 5-17 for Barbados – bowling out Guyana for 66, when they needed only 69 in their fourth innings, for a miracle victory); and didn’t make West Indies’ squad for the World T20 – despite them having to make four changes to their initial selection. But he was still good enough in the T20 format to make a Man-of-the-Match 73 to win Islamabad the inaugural Pakistan Super League recently.
While Smith’s innings this time was not ‘ultimate accolade’ stuff, it was exactly what was required to get Lions ahead of the game in pursuit of a daunting nine-runs-per-over. In the third over of the chase, he effectively took eleven off one ball from Yuzvendra Chahal. The spinner over-stepped carelessly and was whipped away to the boundary. Smith smashed the free-hit into the crowd.
When he departed, disappointed to spoon a catch into the deep in the sixth over, he’d made a sprightly 32 off 21 balls with 3 fours and two sixes. The Lions were 47-1. The next ‘ball’ again produced 11 runs: New Zealand seamer Kane Richardson wildly speared a leg-side wide all the way to the fence; and his fellow-countryman, McCullum pulled the next delivery for six. For good measure, he hit the next three balls for 4, 6, 4 as well. At the end of the power-play, the Lions were 72-1 – the most productive start to an IPL innings in 2016 and naturally, Kohli immediately signalled for a strategic time-out.
From this base, the Lions were very well strategically-placed – and further excellent contributions from Raina, Dinesh Karthik (who made his first IPL half-century) and Jadeja got them to the finishing line. Bravo gleefully hit his only ball-faced to the boundary to get them over it. And Finch hadn’t batted. For the second game in a row he didn’t make a run – and yet this was a very different result from Thursday.
Lions fans will hope he is fully fit quickly, because the side has now found its winning combination, and now know they can win matches without runs from him – and that will give him even greater freedom in which to score them.