If Rising Pune Supergiants’ last season was a lesson in how to lose, this year, they (without the S) provided a template of how to win. It was a formula that took them to within two runs the title.
First they lost Ravichandran Ashwin and Mitchell Marsh to injury even before a ball was bowled. Therefore the priority early in the season was to find the right combination of overseas and Indian players. To that end, they left out Faf du Plessis for most of the tournament — a brave call in any circumstances- and also Adam Zampa, their first choice leg-spinner and key performer from last season.
This meant they had to rely on Indian talent at the top of the order, and in the bowling department, where Imran Tahir and Ben Stokes needed support. After Mayank Agarwal, Ashok Dinda, and Deepak and Rahul Chahar were tried and discarded, RPS finally brought in the quartet of Rahul Tripathi, Jaydev Unadkat, Shardul Thakur and Washington Sundar. And like the right key in a lock, the combination clicked.
All four of them had little IPL game time. Unadkat had been around, but had only played two matches in the last two years. Thakur had played only one ever. Sundar and Tripathi were in their first IPL. With so much inexperience, it is credit to the team for backing these players. That all of them looked at home even against the biggest names of world cricket is the biggest positive in the RPS story.
Unadkat took a wicket in every game he played, finishing with 24 wickets, just two behind the league’s top wicket-taker, Bhuvneshwar Kumar (after playing two games less). Thakur chipped in with 12 wickets. Tripathi had close to 400 runs at a strike rate of 146, outstripping his senior opening partner Ajinkya Rahane on both counts. He also provided the fans a local connect, being the only player from Pune in the team. And Washington Sundar finished with eight wickets and an economy rate of 6.16, the second lowest in the league (minimum 10 overs).
“We have had some players stand up from out of nowhere”, said coach Stephen Fleming after the final. “We take real pride in that, in creating an environment where some players have been able to excel.”
Also in this category comes Manoj Tiwary. The Bengal batsman scored 324 runs this season, but more impressive was his average of almost 30, underlining his dependability. Jostled up and down the order early in the season to help MS Dhoni find his form, he made the most of every position he got to play at, often making vital contributions when the team was in trouble, like his 44 not out against RCB at home. A harsh critic would point out that he did also fail to close out some games when within reach of a win, like against Delhi Daredevils at the Kotla, and even in the final. But for a player picked up at the fag end of the auction, he has done well for the franchise, and perhaps resurrected his own IPL career.
Steve Smith finished fourth on the Orange Cap chart, with 472 runs, and Tahir had the most wickets among the leg-spinners, finishing fifth overall with 18 wickets. Daniel Christian provided the balance that RPS needed, beefing up both their batting and bowling departments. And Stokes, the most expensive buy in the auction earlier this year, took the league’s MVP award with 12 wickets and 316 runs.
More valuable than the contributions of the overseas players, was how the team performed even after Stokes and Tahir were unavailable. More than their replacements — Zampa and Lockie Ferguson — it was the Indian players who filled in the gaps, with the likes of Washington Sundar and Manoj Tiwary shouldering more responsibility.
The Not So Good:
Considering that this IPL was the time and place to push for a return to the Indian T20 team, Rahane will not be too pleased, despite his 382 runs and two half-centuries. His strike rate, probably the reason he lost his spot in the national side, was his lowest in the IPL since 2014, at 118.
MS Dhoni’s start-slow-take-it-deep-explode-at-the-end policy was a treat to watch when it came off, but didn’t more often, most visibly in the final. His season, despite its revival in the second half, still carries his lowest-ever IPL strike rate of 116.
How does a team with the shortest half-life build a legacy? Their days in the IPL were numbered even as they were created, and one wonders if fans will even remember them 10 years from now, whether they will fade from our memories like Pune Warriors and Kochi Tuskers Kerala.
Yet the RPS will not be forgotten so easily. Their run to the final was a heart-warming story that had everything; the adversity of their poor start, the rise of their unsung heroes, a winning run against more fancied teams, and even a tragic ending. With the universally popular Dhoni in their ranks, a fan following was never a problem. But, despite the multiple social media faux pas on Twitter, this team has made a claim for the hearts of the people of Pune.
“I’m really proud of the combination we put together and the campaign we ran” said Fleming. “We would have loved to put the icing on the cake, but it doesn’t change my feelings about the work we did throughout the year.”
We still see Chennai Super Kings (CSK) shirts in the crowd, a testament to the loyalty the franchise has with their fans. Expect a few Rising Pune Supergiant shirts next year as well.
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