Best XI finally found: Gujarat Lions strike balance before crucial IPL 2016 play-offs

The Gujarat Lions are there. They've qualified for the final stages, and booked a place in the match between the top two teams for a place in next Sunday’s IPL Final.

They have been the league’s most well-balanced side — and while they had a mid-tournament blip, where both form and strategic sense seemed to desert them — they've re-grouped and now look the real deal. Other sides may boast more dynamic top orders with the bat; some may claim a sharper cutting-edge with the ball — but none has as impressive an amount of both.

The Lions have not chopped and changed their team wildly; but they have been prepared to tinker. Saturday night’s crucial match versus Mumbai Indians was a rare example of them sticking with the same XI from their previous fixture. I believe it’s because they've at last found their best team — and what a perfect time to get it right!

Gujarat Lions players celebrate the wicket of Mumbai Indians player Krunal Pandya. BCCI

Gujarat Lions players celebrate the wicket of Mumbai Indians player Krunal Pandya. BCCI

They have an imposing top order with an excellent combination of right and left-handers; big-hitters and run-stealers — all capable of fast-scoring. They have a varied attack, without an obvious weak link, including potential wicket-takers and quality death bowling options.

But they have also pinpointed where they were weak — fielding. They have shuffled their pack astutely and have purposely selected both their main spin-bowler and number eight batsman for their reliability in the field. And that was seen to clear advantage in this decisive Kanpur contest.

Suresh Raina won the toss. I've lost count of how many times I've described the outcome of a flipped coin as being ‘vital’. Both sides needed a win — Mumbai, two points behind the Lions, knew a defeat would likely end their campaign. But the Lions knew the same, since their run-rate has been so dodgy that defeat could see them eliminated by a fraction.

Batting first was a big disadvantage to Rohit Sharma’s side, but he was eager to seize the initiative — and he began positively. The Lions too looked keen and alert. The team with the early edge may well prevail. And in the second over umpire C.K. Nandan thought the Mumbai skipper had that edge — a thin one, into his pads when Dhawal Kulkarni trapped him bang in front of the stumps. He hadn't touched it — and he was plumb. Fortune plays a massive part in the game.

But so too does shrewd selection, and the Lions had got theirs right. In Kulkarni’s next over — having just hit the bowler for a superb straight six, Sharma swung a full-blooded pull to the deep square-leg boundary, in the vicinity of a patrolling outfielder. What if that man having to make ground had been Praveen Tambe? What if the hands needed to cling onto this chance belonged to Shivil Kaushik? But neither was there. It was Shadab Jakati – and he bucketed the ball safely, and without a bead of sweat appearing on his brow. It was the second time in two games that his fielding had made an impact. That catch reflected the Lions’ out-cricket in general — it was excellent. The bowling was accurate and determined; yet with the pitch good and true, and the outfield quick, a high-end score was always likely.

But the Lions kept to their game-plan, and no bowler ever lost control in the face of aggressive batting. Raina kept a tight handle on the situation, and all the while they supported each other with spirited ground-fielding and bankable catching. Dwayne Bravo caught Martin Guptill at mid-on above his head; and in the same Dwayne Smith over, Krunal Pandya top-edged a pull which Aaron Finch clutched to his chest at deep square. It was the third wicket to fall in the first five overs, although forty-five runs were scored.

In the innings’ last four overs, Mumbai only added 27 runs, and more safe hands were witnessed: Kulkarni snaffled Nitish Rana at deep square leg; Smith pouched Kieron Pollard at long-off; Raina bagged Harbhajan Singh at deep midwicket; and Ravindra Jadeja securely grabbed Hardik Pandya at long on. But the catch of the match was the key one — breaking the main partnership: Dwayne Bravo clinging onto a sizzling return drive by Jos Buttler, after he and Rana had added 75 in under nine overs. It fizzed off the bat, and the reaction time for Bravo must have been about a tenth of a second. But he put his hands up alongside his face and cleanly intercepted and held the exocet. It was an absolute screamer, and Dwayne knew it — and he danced off on his aeroplane jig while the scoreboard confirmed what we knew: ‘Champion’.

172-8 was under-par, but the Lions still had to get them. Finch was swapped with Smith to take the number one position; but lasted only a ball longer than the Barbadian had in the previous match: lbw to Vinay Kumar, second ball for nought. Raina came in, full of the same determination to grab the game by the scruff of the neck that Sharma had earlier shown. When Mitch McClenaghan came on to bowl the third over, with the aim of bowling fast and short in an attempt to unsettle him, Raina took on the challenge of the rising ball. He was almost caught at mid-on off a mistimed pull; then he nearly chopped on. It was the first time this season he’d looked a little jumpy at the crease — but he was not going to back down. He pulled his next ball wide of long-on for four; he then slapped the next over the in-field to the extra-cover boundary; and he finished the over in style — upper-cutting over deep third man for six. The Lions captain had signalled the necessary intent, and he and his team were not going to die wondering.

Brendon McCullum needed no invitation to join his skipper in the charge, and the pair put ninety on the board by the end of the eighth over. They rode their luck a little; but only in that they were aided and abetted by bad bowling and poor fielding — with more shots going through fielder’s legs than the Indians will care to remember. But the difference between the two sides came in the sixth over: Raina had just hit Jasprit Bumrah for four and six when he drove a catch straight back to the bowler, which he floored. It was a tough chance, but easier than the one Bravo had taken earlier. The over went for nineteen, and the Lions’ management began thinking about travel arrangements for Tuesday.

McCullum and Raina were dismissed within an over of each other, but Smith and Jadeja settled the nerves and the issue with an unbroken fifty-one run partnership to secure victory with thirteen balls to spare — the scores being levelled, ironically, by another four escaping through an outfielder’s hands and legs. How apt.

Mumbai had let the season slip through their fingers; while the Lions have grasped theirs as tightly as a Dwayne Bravo caught and bowled.

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Updated Date: May 22, 2016 10:03:51 IST

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