Mohali: On the morning of Kings XI Punjab's (KXIP) match against Kolkata Knight Riders (KKR), the host broadcaster showed a clip of home team's warm-up drill. The players stood in neat lines, and proceeded to perform a peculiar mix of aerobics and bhangra on dhol beats. It was queer to watch, and more precisely, for a team fighting for survival, such marketing shenanigans to impose the intrinsic Punjabi joie de vivre - in the garb of cardio - was flabbergasting. By the time the day ended, the drumbeats and dance had vanished in the hot Mohali air. What remained was the scoreline; a rude, objective reminder of another season gone awry.
As the half-full PCA Stadium roared for one last time on Friday, KXIP's campaign at IPL 2019 came to a whimpering end. KKR, riding on Punjab's very own Shubman Gill's sublime innings, cantered to a clinical win with two overs and seven wickets to spare, leaving the hosts plenty to ponder over.
It is the second consecutive year where KXIP's business end of the tournament stood in stark contrast to their early-season form. Last year, they finished seventh with 12 points; this year, as of Saturday, they are seventh again, this time with 10 points. They still stand an outside chance if they win their final match and the other results go their way but their poor net run rate makes it extremely difficult. If they fail to qualify, 2019 will mark the fifth straight year when KXIP have failed to make it to the last four. The last time they did go that far, they went on to play the final, which they lost to, well, KKR.
Watching a classy Gill reel off 65 chanceless runs against his team, KXIP camp could be excused to venture into the futile terrain of what-ifs. What if they had poached Gill - a local talent with immense potential - at the auction table? What if they had managed to unearth one Indian talent who could have lent them balance? What if their playing XIs were not limited by six-batsmen-five-bowler formula?
To be fair, Ashwin did break free from that trope and played six bowlers against KKR. That the sixth bowler - Sam Curran - went for over ten runs per over is another story, as is the fact that Curran played a stellar role in KXIP reaching 183/6. On this Mohali pitch though, even 200 runs were imminently chasable, more so when the opposition has a certain Andre Russell in their ranks.
Skipper Ashwin hit the nail on the head when he singled out KXIP's inability to capitalise on batting and bowling powerplays throughout their campaign; Friday's debacle was yet another illustration. Put into bat first, KXIP scored just 41 runs at the end of batting powerplay with the loss of their in-form openers Chris Gayle and KL Rahul. You don't win T20s with that strike-rate, simple.
KXIP's problems with their middle order are well-documented. On Friday, their Nos 3, 4, and 5 contributed 109 runs, but crucially, each of Mayank Agarwal, Nicholas Pooran, and Mandeep Singh threw away their starts. In last three overs of their batting, KXIP had just one specialist batsman at the crease in Sam Curran, and luckily for Ashwin, his move of including Curran in place of misfiring David Miller came good. The young left-hander's stunning assault on Harry Gurney yielded 22 runs in the 20th over, and gave KXIP their highest total batting first this season.
Then came the second part of Ashwin's grouse - the bowling powerplay. Mohammed Shami has been effective but expensive, while every other KXIP pacer has been just expensive. On Friday, Shami traded his expense for economy. He bowled with pace and purpose, went at less than six runs an over, dismissed Russell, and still ended up bowling an over short of his quota. On a night when KXIP's two other pacers - Curran and Arshdeep Singh - went for 10 and 12 runs an over apiece, Ashwin's proclivity to save Shami for the death can't be faulted with.
Shami started KXIP's defence with a three-run over; his bowling partner, Arshdeep Singh, started with a 10-run over. Shami followed with a seven-run over, Singh responded by conceding 15. The next two overs, bowled by Ashwin and Andrew Tye, went for 27 runs as KKR raced to 62/1 at the end of the powerplay - a cool 21 runs more and a wicket less than their opponents at the same stage. The mismatch decided the match.
KKR lost just two more wickets in the next 11 overs, and all this while, young Gill went about collecting runs by way of typically fuss-free and eye-catching strokeplay. His 49-ball unbeaten 65 set the platform for a clinical chase, besides restoring his worth as a top-class batsman. KKR next play Mumbai Indians on Sunday while KXIP will host table-toppers CSK the same day. If and when the dust finally settles after another madcap edition of IPL, KXIP think-tank might perhaps look back at the season with familiar wistfulness and regret. Will it fire them enough to do something special? We'll get to know only next year.