At the end of their final home encounter in Indian Premier League (IPL) 2019, the entire Delhi Capitals squad performed a lap of honour around the ground, throwing mementos at the crowd that had stayed back long after the match was over.
There was a smile plastered over the faces of the players and everyone else in the Delhi Capitals camp that came from a sense of relaxation. Even though Delhi had already secured a place in the playoffs with another two league games left, the fact that they were able to end their group stage campaign on a high with a victory in front of their home crowd had perhaps given the players a reason to celebrate a little longer into the night before they begin their preparation for the crucial knockouts.
Clicking as a unit has been one of the key reasons behind Delhi's consistent run this season. While the erstwhile Daredevils had the ingredients to succeed, a good individual performance or two was drowned out by the lack of cohesion from the rest of the side. The chinks in the armour had been exposed on a couple of occasions this season, but the fact that some of the other members of the squad were able to fill the void and guide the team home is why they have been able to collect nine wins from 14 games this year.
A major headache for skipper Shreyas Iyer and the rest of the team management would've been the exit of Kagiso Rabada due to a back niggle for the remainder of the season, and whether the bowling unit would be able to make up for the absence of an individual who has accounted for 25 wickets this season at the top of the bowling charts along with an equally impressive average of 14.72. Ishant Sharma and Amit Mishra answered that question on Saturday when they helped dismantle the Rajasthan Royals batting lineup with a performance that was as clinical as it could get.
Ishant's white-ball chances in the international scene have diminished over the years, but on Saturday the lanky Delhi pacer once again highlighted how he could be just as useful with his variations in a T20 game as he would with the red ball for the Indian team. On sharp turner that did not offer much bounce, the kind of wicket that Delhi has had throughout this season, it was Ishant's variations, bringing in the odd knuckle ball and a cutter every now and then, that helped him dismiss three of the top four batsmen to put Delhi in a position of advantage from the word go.
"He has developed a lot of variations. Ishant Sharma is not just a swing bowler any more. He is bowling different types of slower balls, there are the cutters, the slower bouncers — so it just shows that he has many weapons in his armoury now," said Delhi Capitals fielding coach Mohammad Kaif in the press conference after the match.
Even though he got hit all over the park by Riyan Parag towards the end, leaking 18 runs in his final over to finish with 3/38, it was his Powerplay spell that set things in motion for the hosts in the first place. Maybe the Delhi captain could pull a leaf out of Chennai Super Kings' book, and utilise Ishant's four overs in one burst in the first half of the innings much like how MS Dhoni does with Deepak Chahar, a move that might prove beneficial for the pacer in the remaining games.
If Ishant got them the kind of start that Delhi needed, Mishra effectively buried the Rajasthan batting unit with a three-wicket burst. The ball was turning quite sharply, as Shreyas Gopal's stumping in the 12th over would indicate, with Mishra then getting rid of Stuart Binny off the very next delivery with a topspinner that induced an outside edge.
The veteran leggie would've been celebrating a lot harder had Trent Boult held on to the catch in the hat-trick delivery after a thick edge by Krishnappa Gowtham. Mishra nevertheless managed to dismiss the Karnataka spinner in his next over to finish with superb figures of 3/17. As if he wasn't done yet, he held on to a low catch at short cover in the 18th over to give Boult his first wicket of the day. Picking him as the Man of the Match wasn't quite a difficult task after all.
Despite Parag's late resistance that took Rajasthan into a three-digit score, a target of 116 was never going to be a tough one to crack unless the Delhi batsmen showed an equal lack of application as their opponents did. Delhi lost five wickets at regular intervals, which all but took away the side's hopes of completing the chase inside 10 overs in order to dislodge Chennai from the top of the table. In the end, Rishabh Pant played a mature knock, and his half-century helped the side win with 23 balls to spare, and move to the second spot in the points table.
The Delhi Capitals now face a challenge that hasn't come their way for the last seven seasons — the Playoffs. While the team has dished out excellent performances in all three departments this season, the pressure that knockout matches invariably bring will be unlike anything that they have faced so far. That is where coach Ricky Ponting, who perhaps understands a thing or two about high-pressure knockout matches, will play a big role in preparing his team for the mental side of the challenge that awaits them in a couple of days' time.
The kind of flow that they are in at the moment, Delhi Capitals will know they are closer to the trophy than they have ever been. The change in name has co-incidentally brought in a change of fortune for the perennial underachievers. Time to see whether it adds the long-missing trophy to their cabinet as well or not.