Scorecards never tell you the complete story. You can say Rajasthan Royals pulled off a stunning last over victory against Chennai Super Kings. You can also tell Jos Buttler played a match-winning 96 off 60 balls. At first glance, it also appears the move to send Ben Stokes to open the batting didn’t pay. But look deeper, and it was the move that set up the Rajasthan chase.
As Buttler later told, the move was partially forced by Stokes pulling a hamstring. On Shane Warne’s insistence, he was sent to open the batting as he wouldn’t be able to run well in the middle orders. The move forced Dhoni to bowl his spinners up front, something he hasn’t done a lot this IPL. He chose Harbhajan Singh who doesn’t like bowling in the powerplay generally. Harbhajan prefers the middle overs where he can close the boundary options and try to prize out a wicket by applying pressure. Even though Harbhajan did get Stokes at the end of fourth over, he didn’t bowl another over after that.
Overall, the CSK spinners bowled seven overs for 67 runs in the entire inning. The move to send Stokes to open the batting and making MS Dhoni bowl his spinners earlier than he would have liked was akin to queen sacrifice in chess. Where you sacrifice your queen to gain a tactical advantage.
Rajasthan Royals is a team of parts. You have the superstars in one part, utility players in another, and there are those who are more or less making up the numbers. Such a team is always going to be hit and miss because you can’t rely on them to turn up a good performance in all three departments of the game on a consistent basis.
In Jaipur, the Rajasthan's bowling was shoddy for the most part, to begin with. Their bowlers bowled too full and gave too much room to Suresh Raina and Shane Watson at the start of the innings and were duly punished. To make matters worse, they merrily gave away freebies with ten wides and one no ball.
Ish Sodhi was the only Rajasthan bowler who managed to apply some pressure on a consistent basis. Chennai batsmen otherwise, were always able to find a release shot whenever they were put under pressure. Sodhi's inclusion in this Rajasthan team has made their bowling a lot more potent in the middle overs. The good thing about Sodhi is the fact that he is prepared to go for a few runs while trying to pick wickets. In Jaipur, where the outfield is slightly bigger than other IPL venues, he is also prepared to toss the oddball up and challenge the batsman. Having Warne as your mentor is a dream come true for any young leg-spinner, and Sodhi is making the most of his chance.
CSK batsmen appeared a bit conservative towards the end despite having wickets in hand. They had set themselves up for a score of 170 odd looking at the nature of the pitch, and they were not going to risk losing wickets in an attempt to go beyond that. Rajasthan Royals, on their part, also pulled things back towards the end a bit. Jofra Archer was brilliant with his yorker and variations at the end. Dhoni said at the presentation that 176 was an above-par score, but given his team crossed 100 around the 11-over mark with just one wicket down, Rajasthan might have been slightly relieved at not chasing 190 or 200. Rajasthan had the advantage of seeing how the pitch behaves and they knew the best time to score quick runs is right at the top when the ball is new.
What separates a genuinely modern T20 player from an effective but a more conventional one is the ability to hit the first ball for a boundary. England produce some of the most fearless T20 batsmen these days, and Buttler along with Jason Roy is a flag bearer of the so-called brave new England approach.
When Buttler hit the first three deliveries of the innings for four, Dhoni knew he had a match on his hand. This is what intent can do; it can rattle the even most seasoned of pros. Someone like Dhoni who never gives away much, looked nervous and angry almost throughout the inning. He was unhappy with how his bowlers were executing the plans given to them and kept chopping and changing them more frequently than he would have liked. Barring Shardul Thakur, who bowled with great rhythm and consistency, and Ravindra Jadeja who got some purchase from the pitch, none of the CSK bowlers had much control over the proceedings.
As the innings wore on, Buttler was battling the Jaipur heat more than the opposition bowlers. He had run a lot of twos on this big outfield and seemed too drained to play the big shots. Buttler though isn't a one-trick pony. He is a powerful striker of the ball, but he can also innovate and play those delicate shots to open the field. When he couldn't clear the field, he created opportunities by playing cheeky ramps or by leaving the crease and making room to find the gaps.
Buttler got Rajasthan close, but he needed someone to push from the other end while he sets his sight at the finishing line. That push was provided by Stuart Binny and Krishnappa Gowtham. Gowtham, in particular, was again impressive in a pressure situation and showed excellent hitting technique and temperament.
With 12 to get off the final over, you tend to back the batting side these days. One last big hit from Buttler sealed the win for his team as they ran the remaining runs. Against Dwayne Bravo, the really good hitters back themselves to wait for his slower ball, and if they pick it up early, they can trust their power to clear the boundary.
This was one of the great IPL innings from Buttler. The nature of the pitch, the harsh weather conditions, a high-pressure must-win game to stay alive in the competition were all factors stacked against him. But Rajasthan Royals know, and Buttler knows that if his team have to stay alive in the tournament, his efforts on Friday night aren't going to be enough. He has to do it again in the next couple of games to see them through to the playoffs.