With 51 to score off three overs and Mohammed Shami and Sheldon Cottrell likely to bowl them, it would have been over-optimistic for a Rajasthan Royals fan to predict a win. They were already chasing 224, a target never reached in the history of the Indian Premier League batting second irrespective of the result. But Rahul Tewatia, 8 off 19 at one point and 17 off 23 at this stage, believed in himself, probably because he had struck at over 150 between overs 16 and 20 in IPL.
Tewatia hit five sixes off Cottrell and one more in the next over, off Shami, to bring up his fifty. He got out, but not before he had lifted the Royals from the quagmire he had himself got them into. His promotion had raised some eyebrows, but it was a necessary move on three counts.
First, as he explained after the match, he was the sole left-hander among those with any batting credentials, and Kings XI Punjab had two leg-spinners in their line-up.
Secondly, Rajasthan had gone in with only four batsmen and a wicketkeeper – a strategy that had helped Kolkata Knight Riders against Sunrisers Hyderabad – so they wanted to hold to use him as a pinch hitter and hold back Riyan Parag and Robin Uthappa for the final flourish.
The third reason came from Steven Smith, in the post-match ceremony. “What we have seen from Tewatia in the nets is what we saw in that Cottrell over.”
It was justified, but Tewatia found it difficult to get going. It was not due to a lack of effort. In fact, at one point, especially during the 13th over, bowled by Bishnoi, he swung thrice and missed thrice outside off-stump. The frustration was visible, especially after he had returned 1-0-19-0. Almost nothing had gone his way in the match until – as he would admit after the match – he hit that one six, also off Bishnoi.
The Royals, as mentioned above, had gone in with one batsman fewer, having swapped David Miller for Ankit Rajpoot to accommodate Jos Buttler at the top. It seemed to have backfired when Buttler holed out to deep square-leg off Cottrell, but Smith (50 in 27 balls) and Sanju Samson (85 in 42) took over from where they had left against Chennai Super Kings. That night they had added 121 in 56 balls; this time it was 81 in 40.
Jimmy Neesham did a competent job in the middle overs, and Punjab's fielding was superb, the highlight being Nicholas Pooran’s gravity-defying effort when he flew full-stretch to catch Samson after the ball crossed the ropes, realised he was going to land on the other side, and somehow still managed to scoop it back into the playing arena. He converted a six into a two.
Shami and Cottrell, before they ran into a rejuvenated Tewatia, had done well. What failed was their strategy of going in with two leg-spinners, Bishnoi and M Ashwin. Bishnoi’s figures – 4-0-34-0 – seem impressive at face value, but they included six dot balls against a struggling Tewatia. Ashwin conceded 12 runs in his first over and was recalled only to bowl when all was over.
The Royals' leg-spinners did not fare any better. As mentioned, Tewatia went for 19 in his only over, but Shreyas Gopal (4-0-44-0) was taken to the cleaners as well. The Sharjah pitch has yielded runs in the previous matches, which meant that batsmen from both sides would aim to clear the ground. Both teams, thus, had gone in with two leg-spinners, none of whom rose to the occasion.
Earlier, Mayank Agarwal had scored a scintillating 106, off a mere 50 balls, an innings even more remarkable than his 60-ball 89 against Delhi Capitals. At one stage it seemed he would go past his captain KL Rahul’s 132, the highest IPL score by an Indian, an innings he played only three nights ago. Rahul and Agarwal added 183 in 99 balls, the third-highest opening partnership in the history of the tournament.
Their job was made easier by Rajasthan’s strategy to start with Jaydev Unadkat and Ankit Rajpoot. They had gone in with six bowlers, but unlike Kolkata (who had opened with Pat Cummins), they did not have their main strike bowler first up. Cummins’ first spell had set the tone of the match that night. By the time Archer came on here, Agarwal and Rahul were already set.
Rahul played an uncharacteristically slow 54-ball 69 before Glenn Maxwell and Pooran produced the fireworks in the slog overs. If anything, Rahul’s innings slowed down the Punjab onslaught. Between them, his teammates scored 144 in 67 balls.
What hurt Punjab most was Rahul’s inability to get the ball away even after he brought up his fifty, when Punjab had crossed the 15th over without losing a wicket. Rahul got only 19 off the last 19 balls (two fours) he faced, depriving Punjab of what could have been a decisive 10, even 15 or 20 extra runs.
In the end, however, the match will be remembered for the spectacular finale, one that has almost no parallel in the history of the tournament. Tewatia’s one-of-its-kind performance of two halves is likely to be the talk of the cricket fraternity, at least till the Royals play their next match. Right now they sit smugly at second place, level with Delhi Capitals on points but behind in net run rate.
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