It was a painful experience. Mercifully, it was all over well ahead of schedule.
Thursday night for the Gujarat Lions was as unsuccessful as the worst imaginable blind date. It went all wrong — uncomfortable, embarrassing, soul-destroying. Thankfully, she got up and left after an hour, and went off to do something far better with her time — and you were at least able to get a much earlier train home, ahead of the crowd, and got a decent night's sleep.
This was a nightmarish performance by the Lions, and they do need to move on.
The evening began badly, with Sunrisers winning the toss, and it only went downhill from there. It's been noticeable in this year's IPL that the flip of the coin is taking on a greater significance than it maybe has in eight previous editions. Teams are almost without fail inserting the opposition and regularly overhauling their totals.
Whether that has anything to do with the comfort of knowing what your target is, with having more time to assess the prevailing conditions, the relative absence in 20-over cricket of "scoreboard pressure", or the effect of moonlight upon the fielding team's countenance; no one is certain what it is. Peter Miller, reporting for Firstpost on the (generally) under-performing King's XI Punjab, had said that sides batting first in the shortest format of cricket are reluctant to play with complete abandon when setting a target — for fear of falling short of a decent score — and consequently regularly make fair, but not insurmountable totals. Sides batting second can freely go hell-for-leather in pursuit, whether they are chasing 130 or 230. It's foot down, and hang the consequences.
Thereby you have more interest focusing upon the toss as, statistically, if not literally, it is settling T20 games. If the win/loss ratio relating to successfully calling heads or tails is not actually a cause/effect issue, it is increasingly a psychological one. Whatever be the case, the fact remains that Suresh Raina's Lions had batted second in three games and won all three. On Thursday he lost the toss and batted first — and the match was lost too.
The toss is certainly having a big impact. But if Gujarat Lions want to put their defeat down to that, they'd be fooling themselves. If they had narrowly lost a tight contest, a lost toss may have been a mitigating factor. The fact is they lost by 10 wickets with 31 balls to spare. They were thrashed out of sight; annihilated, obliterated, hammered.
But the toss was not the only thing they got wrong before the umpire called "play". They also picked a badly lopsided team, totally unsuited to the conditions. In previous games, they had always been a batsman short, but three excellent knocks by Aaron Finch papered over the cracks and got them across the finishing line. On Saturday against Mumbai Indians, Finch appeared to pull up with a possible torn hamstring just short of the wire. He took the Lions to a last-ball victory with one good leg, but was a huge doubt for this fixture. It was a big relief when he was declared fit, though of absolutely no material consequence to this match's outcome: Bowled fourth ball of the game for 0.
The Lions' bowling has been their surprising strength, with only the usually reliable James Faulkner off-colour — and he was rested for this match. I had argued after their previous win for his substitution with Dwayne Smith — a superior batsman but inferior bowler than Faulkner — but an-all-rounder nonetheless, who'd allow captain Raina still plenty of bowling options to call upon. Instead, and incredibly, the Lions included pace-bowler and lower order batsman Dale Steyn. Steyn is rusty, and there is also a whisper after his clobbering in the T20 World Cup that he has lost his edge. This was a puzzling switch, and when the Lions top-order (except Raina) failed, Faulkner's, or Smith's, much-needed presence in the middle-order was missing.
What could the management have thought? In their previous home game, the Lions fielded three front-line spinners, each bowling his full allotment, and Shadab Jakarti had even opened the bowling. Tonight, despite two excellent performances, he was the one who made way for the returning Ravindra Jadeja. Baffling. Surely, the big-hearted Dhawal Kulkarni, who'd covered for Jadeja while he was tying the knot, had to make way? In fact, during the Sunrisers' ruthless dismemberment of the Lions, it looked at one point as though Kulkarni wouldn't even get to bowl — he didn't get the call from his skipper until the 14th over, with the score already 116 without loss.
And you'd have been forgiven for not noticing. The game had become boring. Fans at home were probably switching off, and the TV coverage had switched its attention elsewhere. The clown in the crowd was picked out as the camera panned away from the clowns on the field, while the commentators too moved on to talking about the upcoming matches. This game had ceased to be of interest: it had produced little narrative, no twists, no turns, and no big reveal. It was like reading an Agatha Christie novel with Miss Marple fingering the obvious culprit on page thirty — and that's it.
Raina knew the game was long gone, and the selections completely wrong. It was not the bowlers' fault his side lost this game, but their figures, if you check the scorecard, do reflect how they bowled. Steyn did not threaten or give any hint that his inclusion was justified; Dwayne Bravo lost his line and length, but the game situation was already hopeless, so he couldn't apply any of the pressure he thrives upon. Most notably dreadful though was the usually trusty Pravin Kumar. His two overs cost 31, and included a horrendous leg-side wide that scuttled past wicket-keeper Dinesh Karthik to the boundary. I always like to identify a single moment that encapsulates the way a side played on the day: for the Lions, this was it. If you only saw that one awful delivery, it told you everything you needed to know about how they performed.
Ironically though, that would not include captain Suresh Raina. He batted superbly, almost entirely unsupported after Finch went, stroking the ball gorgeously through extra-cover first ball, gloriously straight a couple of overs later, scoring at a good rate, rarely missing out on a bad ball, and always keeping the scoreboard moving. He was out in the last over for a fine 75 from 51 balls. If he'd even had a modicum of support, then his side could have made a workable total. But McCullum looked ugly and out-of-form again, although he did hit a couple of clean shots — One to, one over, the fence – but he was, worryingly, frequently beaten. Karthik, Bravo and Jadeja scored 30 between them and not one of them scored above a run-a-ball; and young Akshdeep Nath's innings was so awful, so "naff" (five runs off 10 balls at the end of the innings) that one had to presume he was being selected as a specialist fielder.
Raina knew that he was on his own this night. He demonstrated it in the sixth over of the Sunrisers' reply, when as skipper he threw the ball to…himself. There was no-one else he trusted to bowl, or felt was not going to let him down. But perhaps he may reflect that he made his own negative contribution before they even went out to play — with the selection of THAT team, and by losing THAT toss.