“I would like to see them chase down a score.”
Ravichandran Ashwin confidently said at the toss in the game against Sunrisers Hyderabad. He had not only buckled the trend of teams winning the toss and choosing to bowl first in the eleventh edition of the IPL but also decided to take the bull by its horn.
Make no mistake, Sunrisers Hyderabad were the team to beat even in the absence of David Warner in their batting ranks. Their bowling was top notch and in the three games prior to Punjab match in the season, they hadn't conceded more than 147.
Kings XI went on to give the Sunrisers a nightmare as Chris Gayle took the attack to Rashid Khan and Co. with a brilliant hundred. The Afghanistan spinner was slammed for six sixes across two overs and the contest between the two all but settled the game for Kings XI.
At first glance one wonders if Ashwin made a pea-brained choice and got lucky. But dig deeper and you notice two things. Despite Sunrisers record at Mohali (they had won in 2013, 2015, 2016 and 2017) and the trend of chasing in this edition of IPL, the only way Kings XI could put pressure on Sunrisers was to tackle their quality bowling attack first and then challenge their batting unit, which is less formidable than most T20 teams.
It was a mind-blowing decision and the words Ashwin uttered at the toss shows the kind of confidence he had in his team to implement the plan to success.
Four days later, at the Feroz Shah Kotla, where the surface was a bit of an unknown even for the home team, Ashwin's tactical nous came to the fore yet again.
On a sluggish surface against an inspired Liam Plunkett, Kings XI, sans a sore Chris Gayle, struggled to get going. They crawled and scuffled their way to a paltry 143 which was unimaginably low if you consider the kind of batsmen Delhi Daredevils had on paper.
However, even as young Prithvi Shaw started off Delhi’s run chase with a blast, Ashwin kept bowling Ankit Rajpoot with the new ball knowing that the seamer has had experience bowling on these kinds of wicket in Kolkata.
In four exceptional overs upfront, Rajpoot picked up the wickets of Shaw and Maxwell. If not for two back-to-back boundaries in the last two balls of his spell, Rajpoot would have had much better figures to show for, but even then, it gave him the Man of the Match award.
The tone of the game was already set by Rajpoot (or rather, Ashwin). Unlike the popular trend this IPL, Ashwin has refrained from being a one-trick pony by bowling his spinners within the Powerplay every single game.
He has used Mujeeb Ur Rahman in the Powerplay when the situation demands it and has even taken the new ball himself. But against Sunrisers Hyderabad and Delhi Daredevils, surfaces where the ball did a little something for the pace bowlers early on, Ashwin backed his quicker men to do the job. And on both occasions, they delivered.
At Delhi, he kept rotating his bowlers after bowling out Rajpoot early, ensuring that none of the batsmen get an eye in against one particular bowler. Barinder Sran, for instance, had gone for 41 runs in his first three overs including 15 of the third over but was trusted to bowl the penultimate over of the innings.
In many ways, the decision was baffling. Mujeeb, who had bowled brilliantly in the game, would have been an ideal choice to bowl that all-important second-last over. But given Shreyas Iyer's abilities against spin and Plunkett's power-hitting abilities, Ashwin chose Sran and kept Mujeeb, who is still a bit of an unknown, for the final over.
In what turned out to be a sensational decision, Sran conceded a mere four runs, picking up the wicket of Plunkett in the process, thus giving the young Afghanistan spinner sixteen to defend off the final over. Mujeeb gave away 12 runs to clinch the victory for Kings XI.
The slowness in the surface was brilliantly exploited by the Kings XI bowlers. They kept coming at the Delhi batsmen and never stopped believing thanks to a vocal, expressive skipper with a cricketing mind.
Some of the choices Ashwin has made in this IPL has belied common notion but he has backed himself and his team to the hilt and the results are there to be seen. Four successive wins put them atop the points table and for once, the Punjab side appears to have the right ingredients to push for a title, the first time that can be said of them since the inaugural season when a rampant Shaun Marsh raised hopes of a maiden title.
From pumping up Chris Gayle by dropping him in the first two games to pushing a teenager from opening the attack to bowling at the death to giving KL Rahul the license to go all out in attack at the top, Ashwin has made some stellar decisions. What their bowling has lacked in reputation, Ashwin has made up for with wise deployment of resources.
His post-match presentation talk highlights his clear thought process and uncluttered mind. “We were discussing about what to be bowling in the 19th rather than whom to bowl because I had made up my mind to bowl Mujeeb for the final over. In the previous over, Sran tried the yorkers and got hit. So we were discussing about that, the length, slower balls and stuff like that. AJ (Tye) was my best bowler of the day, so bowled him early because if he got Shreyas Iyer, then that's the game and that's why I bowled him out early. I did believe that with the lower-order and the foreign batsmen coming in, Mujeeb would be tougher to hit. If we are a team that is serious about doing well in the championship and going any distance, this is the game we needed to get past. Once you defend a low score, then you can bank on anybody and everybody to go the distance,” Ashwin said.
He has fought conventions, charged up a near-dead franchise and rekindled the buzz in them. Many a times, Kings XI Punjab have lacked the clarity in thought at crucial junctures. From switching captains mid-season to changing plans mid-match, their on-field demeanor rarely evoked confidence.
However, all that has been put to rest this season with a flamboyant skipper at the helm who knows how to rally together his men and get the best out of them.