Over 400 runs scored. Both teams reaching 200. And yet, this was not a close encounter at all; if anything, it was the least close game we’ve seen so far in IPL 2020.
That’s right. It was one weird, weird game – largely down to one weird, weird chase (which we will come to at length in a bit).
Having started off as a sluggish, grafting affair, IPL 2020 got its infusion of big-hitting and giant scores as the caravan moved to Sharjah, with Rajasthan Royals (without Jos Buttler) proving too good for Chennai Super Kings on Tuesday evening.
Let’s see what we learned from the first game of the season at a venue so iconic to Indian cricket.
This is Sharjah!
Sixes hit in the first three matches of IPL 2020: 28. Sixes hit in the first game at Sharjah: 33.
The Sharjah Cricket Stadium is less than 50 kilometres from the Dubai International Stadium, which hosted the games on Sunday and Monday. Abu Dhabi’s Sheikh Zayed Stadium is a bit further away, but even that is still less than a two-hour drive from Sharjah.
And yet, as all pre-season analyses had indicated, this venue is poles apart from its two neighbouring facilities. And probably closest to the ones the IPL is used to, in its original habitat.
Counting all T20s since 2018 ahead of IPL 2020, the scoring rate at Sharjah was 8.06, miles clear of Dubai (7.42) and Abu Dhabi (7.35), and right next to the all-time IPL scoring rate of 8.10.
The size of the outfield, coupled with a track that was about as dry as the desert surrounding it, meant it could have easily been Wankhede or the Chinnaswamy. By the end of it, the all-time record for most sixes in an IPL game – 33 – had been levelled.
11 more games remain to be played here, with every team getting three bites each of the pie. Don’t count on that record to stay intact.
Samson sizzles; can he avert the fizzle?
The only previous time Sanju Samson had played at Sharjah, in 2014 against Kings XI Punjab, he hit 52 off 34 balls. Six years may have passed, but he clearly does like it here.
It’s not just that he blazed 74 off 32. It’s not even that he smoked nine sixes – three more than there had been hit in any of the six innings before this game.
He did it to a team against whom he had, in seven innings spanning seven years, managed 79 runs in 79 balls. He did it to a line-up that presented him with bowler after bowler who he had fared miserably against, but boy, did he change the course of those match-ups on Tuesday: Deepak Chahar had got him out twice in 21 balls, he was hit for nine off four; Sam Curran had got him once in five balls, he was hit for 13 off five; Ravindra Jadeja had got him twice in 24 balls in the IPL, he got smacked for 22 off 11, with three sixes; worst of all, Piyush Chawla, who had kept Samson down to 29 in 29 balls with two dismissals, was shellacked for 27 off just seven, with four maximums.
In 5 overs - 40/1
In 10 overs - 119/1
— Rajasthan Royals (@rajasthanroyals) September 22, 2020
The clean striking, the crisp hitting, the pristine timing – it was that annual reminder that we’ve become accustomed to from the blade of Sanju Samson. That yearly fixture when every viewer in India wonders what could be.
Thing is, Samson’s history shows that this reminder, on average, comes once a season. Here’s hoping he finds enough comfort in the UAE to make it a more regular occurrence this time around.
How do the Royals' line-up look with Buttler?
For the first time in a professional career nearing its 13th anniversary, Steven Smith opened the batting in a competitive game. And – surprise, surprise! – he scored runs. 69 off 47, and while you could complain about a lack of levers in the finishing stretch, he did outdo his standard T20 self (career T20 strike rate: 126).
Rajasthan’s next outing, against Punjab on Sunday, will, in all likelihood, see them welcoming Jos Buttler back into the XI. One would imagine he would walk straight back to the top of the order – Buttler averages over 60 while striking at 160 as an opener since IPL 2018, and has been RR’s best-performing batsman by a distance.
So what does that mean? Everyone, starting with Smith, moves down by one spot?
Two standout issues with that, if it happens. Firstly, are you okay with someone in the kind of touch Samson is in walking out at four, with half the innings (or more) gone? Secondly, do you feel Robin Uthappa can do a job at number five or below?
The first of those questions might present an interesting debate, but the second, well, shouldn’t even be a bone of contention: Uthappa has batted outside the top-three on seven occasions in the IPL since 2015, and returned 19 runs – from 46 balls.
Smith, clearly, is best suited to an anchoring role. So could we be about to see Samson the death-overs hitter? It’s a real possibility given the lack of proven domestic options on the bench.
CSK need their ‘spare bike’, sooner than later
“I have a lot of cars and bikes in my house. I don’t ride all at a time.” These were MS Dhoni’s famous words when asked why he didn’t give Harbhajan Singh a single over during a playoff win over Sunrisers Hyderabad en route the IPL 2018 title.
“A lot of times, especially when you have six to seven bowlers in the side, you want to see the conditions, you want to see who is batting and what is needed at that point of time. I see what is in the best interest of the team,” Dhoni had said.
Having had two games to suss out the conditions, and knowing by-and-large the batting line-ups they are going to be facing, the CSK skipper will probably feel what is needed at this point of time, in the best interest of the team, is additional bowling options on the park.
Throughout their years in the IPL so far, one of the constants to Dhoni’s CSK has been the presence of at least six, if not seven, bowling choices in a playing XI. That has been missing in this reworked jigsaw that they have assembled in UAE.
It’s not a reactionary thought; the same absence could have cost them dearly in the opening game against Mumbai Indians too, had the defending champions not collapsed in a heap in the middle overs. At Sharjah, as they faced the full might of the Smith-Samson combine, the absence was particularly telling.
Whether it involves dropping Murali Vijay to accommodate a Shardul Thakur or a Karn Sharma, or finding a way to incorporate Dwayne Bravo once he’s fit, or Imran Tahir, the sooner the Super Kings find a sixth bowler in their XI, the closer they will move to the kind of machine ‘Thala’ has consistently driven into the business end of this tournament.
A weird, weird chase from CSK
By now, you’ve probably read/heard/seen enough dissections of just how off-the-mark Dhoni was with his batting, and how he ought to have got going a lot sooner than he did; if you’d put yourself in a bunker the last time he batted a proper innings and decided to come out on Tuesday, you might have thought time hadn’t moved at all.
Strangely, a majority of his fellow batsmen played in quite the same vein too.
Murali Vijay and Kedar Jadhav’s largely painstaking vigils bore the sense of batsmen seemingly insecure about their place. Faf du Plessis delivered the ultimate two-part knock: 17 off 18 balls, without a boundary, before Dhoni joined him, and 55 off 19 balls, with seven sixes, when he had Dhoni for company.
The captain himself might have statistically papered over a somewhat baffling innings with those three sixes in the 20th over, but coming in with 103 needed from 38 balls, should he – the greatest finisher in the modern-day game – have been on 10 off 13 at 19.2 overs?
On the whole, this first-gear-now-fifth-gear-later mode made for one of the strangest patterns you will find in a 200+ run-chase.
10 of the 20 overs that Chennai faced went for seven or lesser runs; from overs 1, 2, 4, 7, 8, 10, 11, 13, 14 and 16, CSK only accrued 55 runs. The remaining 10, on the opposite pole, fetched 145. Whichever way you look at it, that doesn’t appear like the right way to go about a chase of nearly 11-per-over.
That they came within 17 runs of actually winning it might make it seem okay, but were they ever in it? Even by MSD-powered CSK heist standards? Even by 2020 standards? Imagine a little more intent in any of those 10 overs; not one, or two, or five overs – a little more intent at any part over half an innings.
This could have been very different. Then again, this might have been just as planned. Maybe for the net run rate. Maybe to get some runs under the belt. Maybe to get a match-simulation in a real game.
You never know, the possibilities are endless. The league stage of this competition, after all, is CSK’s world, and we’re all just living in it.
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RR restricted the three-time champions CSK to a modest 125 for five after being invited to bowl and then overcame the target in 17.3 overs, thanks to a 98-run fourth wicket partnership between Buttler and skipper Steve Smith (26).