Krunal Pandya's performance reinforces IPL's purpose: To unearth uncut diamonds

The Indian Premier League is heading into its home stretch. There is one week of group stage matches left and it's still anybody's guess as to who will emerge triumphant. Six out of eight teams in the tournament can genuinely still become champions. Only a fool would try and predict what's going to happen in the next seven days — so here goes:

There are nine group games left, but since one of those pits Kings XI Punjab against fellow no-hopers Rising Pune Supergiants, we can leave that one out of our calculations. On Monday night, Kolkata Knight Riders face Royal Challengers Bangalore. After Virat Kohli and AB de Villiers' pyrotechnics over the weekend, I expect RCB to have the momentum and run out winners. On Tuesday, Delhi Daredevils, fresh from their Sunday night defeat at the hands of Mumbai Indians, will be able to bounce back and return to winning ways against the Supergiants. RCB will then have a similarly easy win on Wednesday against KXIP. Thursday sees a crunch tie between Gujarat Lions and KKR. I expect the Lions to lick their wounds and, with the return of skipper Suresh Raina, get that all-important victory. Friday sees Delhi Daredevils playing their third game in five days, and on the back of their win on Tuesday, will continue their good form and beat a rusty Sunrisers Hyderabad — who wouldn't have had a fixture for five and a half days — and are feeling a little too relaxed at the top of the table.

Krunal Pandya gestures after bringing up his maiden IPL 50. BCCI

Krunal Pandya gestures after bringing up his maiden IPL 50. BCCI

We can all take a nap on Saturday afternoon as RPS and KXIP play for the wooden spoon, but in the evening I expect to see Mumbai Indians continue their late charge and repeat the excellent cricket they demonstrated on Sunday evening, and overcome the Lions. In the final two games on Sunday, the Knight Riders will pull out all the stops in their last game to grab a victory against the Sunrisers; and then the Royal Challengers will continue their irresistible run of form to prevail over the Daredevils. Not including run-rate, this will leave the table looking like this:

Delhi Daredevils – 16 points
Gujarat Lions – 16 points
Kolkata Knightriders – 16 points
Mumbai Indians – 16 points
Royal Challengers Bangalore – 16 points
Sunrisers Hyderabad – 16 points

One of the biggest joys of being a relative newcomer to the IPL is the players one hasn't seen much of before. It's natural for most international viewers of the biggest of all world cricket's domestic events to tune in, wanting to see the exploits of Brendon McCullum, or the Big Show, or the New Big Dog, or ABD, or the World Boss. For me though, the most pleasure I get is in seeing local players step into the spotlight, and however briefly, enjoy the limelight. Occasionally, they hog it, and bask in the beams as though they were made to always be in focus.

Such a man on Sunday was Krunal Pandya. Not long past his 25th birthday, many, both inside and outside India, will be using that phrase so memorably bellowed in triumph by Ian Bishop at the end of this year’s World T20 final — "remember the name". This was his match: he lit it up with the bat, and he ended it by clean bowing the opposition skipper. But it was his 86 off 37 balls that totally stole the show, and the match. His innings was full of free-flowing, crisp shots and punishing strikes. It was an innings where you sat up and took notice.

He came in half-way through the seventh over of the Mumbai Indians innings, inserted after losing the toss. It was 51-1, and he joined Martin Guptill after the openers had got Mumbai off to a good start. Skipper Rohit Sharma had made 31, and Guptill was on 19. The New Zealander is one of the most feared and fastest scorers in world cricket, but despite this head start, Pandya still beat him to the 50-run mark, reaching it off 22 balls. In fact, Guptill was out an over after his partner had reached the mark, and before he’d completed his own half-century.

Pandya, though was unfazed by the loss of the senior man, and accelerated — he sailed through the 60s and 70s — hitting Amit Mishra for 14 in three balls with a pull-sweep for four; followed by a fantastic six over long-on; and another pull over the mid-wicket ropes. In the next over from Zaheer Khan, he played what Ravi Shastri acclaimed as the shot of the innings: A magnificent pull off a length ball, rocking back and dismissing it well beyond the long-on boundary. It was a pity he fell short of his ton, but he'd led his side to a daunting 206-4, a total that was likely to be beyond the Daredevils unless Quinton de Kock rose to the occasion.

The 'keeper-batsman threatened to mount a challenge, and scored freely, and not far short of the required run-rate — but lost three partners in the first eight overs: Mayank Agrawal chopped on; Karun Nair lobbed up a soft catch to short fine-leg, aiming an unnecessary scoop; and Sanju Samson ran himself out. When de Kock was given out caught behind in the 10th over for 40 off 28 balls, the game was as good as over. The decision didn't take as long as the 12 seconds Marais Erasmus deliberated on Thursday, but a standing count of eight was still enough to knock the batsman out. It was unlucky for the young South African, sent on his way for the second successive match without apparently nicking it — but luck comes in many forms and tends to even itself out: When keeping wickets in the Mumbai innings, de Kock could have been very seriously hurt or worse when a full-toss from Zaheer Khan beat Guptill's bat, pitched in front of de Kock and reared up at an increased speed and at a hideously violent angle — flying just over his head without him having any opportunity to raise his gloves to either defend himself or stop the four byes. "De Kock missed it," said Sunil Gavasker. No, Sunny, IT missed him — and thank heavens it did.

De Kock was clearly very shaken by the near miss, and hasn’t looked as rattled since he thought he was going to be assaulted by Dale Steyn when he claimed a catch from under the fast-bowler's nose in an ODI versus Australia. Dale was only kidding, and gave the terrified youngster a big bear-hug. But if Quinton takes a moment to reflect, he may consider that by not getting a touch to either his last two dismissals — or that hair-raising moment when 'keeping on Sunday night — he has probably emerged just about even, and unscathed.

The game is often about fractions. And with all those near-equally good teams at the top of the IPL table, an inch or two here or there may make all the difference this coming week.

Updated Date: May 16, 2016 12:06 PM

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