At the start of this Indian Premier League (IPL) season, Ravichandran Ashwin promised a bagful of surprises from Kings XI Punjab (KXIP). For a new captain, coming in and taking charge at a franchise that has under-achieved through a decade of competition, it is an easy claim to make. Any new — or mildly different ploy — would be seen as surprising, and a move away from departure.
Not playing Chris Gayle in the first two matches can be classified under this, as also the fact that spin had a major role to play in those games against Delhi Daredevils and Royal Challengers Bangalore. Ashwin was seen keenly mixing things around with the resources he had at his disposal. It was still a simple routine though, not out of the ordinary. So when Chennai Super Kings (CSK) came calling, he had to go up one level for the ‘yellow team’ are no ordinary opponents.
“The fact is that I'm here and the fans want to see the Universe Boss, so give the Universe Boss to the fans,” said Chris Gayle in an amusing interview after he set up the game with a trademark knock of 63 runs off 33 balls.
It is not to say that Gayle was angry at not having played the first two games in the premier T20 league of world cricket. Yet, it is easy to consider his contemplation whilst sitting on the bench and watching KL Rahul have a go at the top. When a batsman as carefree in approach as Gayle starts pondering over things, that’s when he assumes a most destructive and dangerous avatar.
On hindsight, it doesn’t come as a surprise that Gayle first featured against Chennai, and not before. This game was personal for Ashwin. This was his old team. Surely the parting was perhaps not bitter as many imagine it to be given that Punjab picked him fair and square at the auction. Yet as competitive as the Punjab skipper is, he wouldn’t want to lose to his old team at his new ‘home’ ground. To unleash a hungry Gayle, well all things told, MS Dhoni would have half-expected this.
Gayle’s approach thereafter was simple, and that is an obvious statement. He pushed Ravindra Jadeja out of the attack, because Dhoni never attacks a left-handed batsman with a left-arm spinner in T20 cricket. Then, Harbhajan Singh got punished and suddenly Punjab were off to a flyer while their guests were searching for answers. That Gayle-Rahul combined with such ease was a throwback to the days when they played for Royal Challengers Bangalore together. Virat Kohli could take their 48-ball opening stand worth 96 runs with a pinch of salt on a day when RCB lost to Rajasthan Royals in a high-scoring game.
The surprises didn’t cease for Punjab hereafter. Mayank Agarwal at No 3 and not Aaron Finch, whose form seems to have suffered since he is not batting at the top; Yuvraj Singh ahead of Karun Nair, with the latter thrust into a finishing role and not given a promotion instead after his half-century in the first game of the season. While Agarwal and Nair came through, Finch’s second cheap dismissal in two games and Yuvraj’s continued struggle meant that Punjab couldn’t double their score.
They were 115/1 after 10 overs and 136/2 after 13 overs when an early second strategic break was taken. Thereafter the momentum shifted and Chennai controlled proceedings in the final overs of Punjab’s innings. Not much importance is given to these strategic timeouts, for they are seen as an excuse to launch more television adverts. But someone as experienced as Dhoni can — and did — use them to good effect to rally his troops.
The last seven overs of Punjab’s innings yielded 61/5. This was a game-turning passage of play, and identified an increasing problem with their batting line-up. In a bid to mix up things, Punjab are losing stability in the middle order thus making their line-up top heavy. A bit of this also has to do with Yuvraj’s struggles, for he simply isn’t getting a move on. If there was pragmatism in benching Gayle for the first two games, logic only dictates that Yuvraj is left out in the next match. Anything else will be surprising from Ashwin.
Chennai’s chase then came down to how they would finish, and Dhoni kept the world on tenterhooks until the penultimate ball. It can be argued that injuries hamstrung their batting line-up and a full-strength Chennai could have actually chased this down. It is a valid point — Suresh Raina could have provided the necessary impetus at No 3 and there wouldn’t have been a need to promote Sam Billings to No 4. Murali Vijay and Ambati Rayudu did a credible enough job at the top, but let it be said that they are not your typical T20 players.
At best, they held up one end whilst also making sure that they matched the asking rate. In such situations, you need players who can grab the game by the neck and exceed the required run-rate. Chennai were missing such players on the night, and thus it was surprising — in keeping with Sunday’s theme — to see Ravindra Jadeja bat ahead of Dwayne Bravo with 85 needed off 36 balls. It was also surprising that Mujeeb Ur Rahman didn’t complete his quota of overs either in what eventually turned out to be a tight chase.
Even so, in a game of ups and downs, twists and turns, one man was a constant. It is easy to say that Dhoni turned back the clock on Sunday night. It is tougher to say whether he will continue this magical form throughout the season, and beyond as India look to win the 2019 World Cup. The truth lies somewhere in between.
He is not the player he used to be for that batsman would have finished the game. He is also not the player everyone thinks he is for he gave Chennai enough hope and helped them score 80 off 36 balls. Dhoni is at that stage in his career, wherein he needs help scoring those extra five runs. And that is not surprising because it is only a natural progression curve in a batsman’s life, who has been around and finished games single-handedly for more than a decade.