The IPL is about heroes. The world's biggest domestic T20 competition sees stars fly in from around the world to be part of the occasion — big names, big talents, and as Chris Gayle crudely likes to imply (and Sunny Gavasker and Ravi Shastri joke about) — big bats too. And there are the home-grown heroes: None more celebrated, and deservedly so, than Virat Kohli. But we must never forget the unsung heroes, the nearly men, the also-rans who contribute solidly, but rarely grab the headlines.
Tuesday's marvellous play-off match between Royal Challengers Bangalore and Gujarat Lions featured several of these — some performed, some didn't — but that is a huge part of the excitement of the contest. Even though it was over with 10 balls and four wickets to spare, it was as fluctuating and thrilling a game as we have seen this season.
Reward was a place in Sunday's final for the winner; the consolation prize for the loser an opportunity to try again on Friday. Both sides, of course, would have fielded upon winning the toss, but it was Virat Kohli's good fortune to call correctly.
Kohli's RCB have been in red-hot form in the second half of this season; before Tuesday's game, they'd won six of their last seven matches, and four on the trot. At the forefront of this sequence has been the incredible batting of skipper Kohli, splendidly supported by the brilliant AB de Villiers; and with the still potentially devastating Chris Gayle at the top of the order — making up perhaps the most terrifying top-three seen in the Indian Premier League's nine years.
Kohli and ABD had already wreaked havoc upon Suresh Raina's Lions when he was absent on paternity leave for the birth of his daughter; and you could smell their fear that RCB might cause carnage again. It was an experience that had left them mentally scarred, and quite understandably so.
This is surely what underlined — and undermined — their approach to the match, especially while batting: The conviction that they must post a big, big score. They aimed high, but were well wide of the mark in execution; within four overs, the cream of the Lions batting had perished, victims of their own reckless cricket. Brendon McCullum set the tone — gone, caught in the deep to the lone man posted for such a miscue. McCullum is an enigma; we always hope to see the belligerent powerhouse hero who lit up both the first ever IPL night, and his last ever Test Match — though in equal measure we get the cataclysmic cowboy, the impetuous gung-ho slogger who gave a "Light Brigade" charge down the wicket in the 2015 World Cup final. Sadly, for the Lions, that's what they got on Tuesday.
Such has been Virat Kohli's batting genius that we have tended to forget his inspired and inspiring leadership. He entrusted the second over of the innings to Iqbal Abdullah and placed AB de Villiers in the outfield. The reward was double-fold, as Aaron Finch followed McCullum, busily trying to work the ball against the spin, rather than settle into his innings. Such was the pressure on the Lions' top-order to push on. Captain Raina was next to go: A short ball from Shane Watson was pulled into the hands of Sreenath Aravind, placed pin-pointedly at backward square leg. One imaged that the game was as good as over already.
But Dwayne Smith had other ideas, and in partnership with Dinesh Karthik rebuilt the innings — the combination working productively: Karthik tapping singles, Smith thumping boundaries. The Bajan bashed five fours and six sixes in his splendid 73 from 41 balls — and if he had not holed out to Kohli midway through the 17th over, the Lions would probably have managed to reach a highly respectable 180 or so. As it was, they were indebted to bright cameos from Eklavya Dwivedi and Dhawal Kulkarni to get them to 158.
While not an insignificant total, it didn't look imposing in the face of the RCB artillery. To put the Royal Challengers under pressure, the Lions needed early wickets. Fans feared the worst when Praveen Kumar's first over was badly off the mark — most markedly so when he misdirected a delivery well down the leg-side, made far more costly by having the wicket-keeper standing up to the stumps. Karthik had no chance, and it went to the fence.
But next up was my personal favourite unsung hero and underdog, the big-hearted Lion, Dhawal Kulkarni. At the start of the tournament, neither he nor Dwayne Smith were part of Lions' first-choice XI. It is now unthinkable to select a side without them both. Here, Kulkarni was bowling to the champion, the man we can already name as man-of-the-tournament: Virat Kohli. Within sight of an unbelievable, perhaps unrepeatable, 1,000 runs in the season, he has been the hero of heroes. He came into the game 81 runs shy of the historic milestone. He left it 81 short. Sensationally, Kulkarni induced the great man to chop on for a duck. The all-round astonishment must have been something like it felt to see Don Bradman go cheaply.
An over later, Kulkarni had Gayle too: Nipping a ball across the left-hander at good pace, and the Jamaican got a faint edge onto the top of his off-stump. Lokesh Rahul came in, and went out, caught first ball at slip. Enter Shane Watson, who only 20 minutes or so earlier had bowled to Kulkarni on a hat-trick, and was now facing him, trying to prevent one. He achieved that aim, but went in the next over, caught at slip off Ravindra Jadeja. It was now 28/4. Kulkarni's heroics continued, as he made it 31/5 with the dismissal of Sachin Baby, who played an immature shot, flashing a high catch to extra cover. "Baby lost his bottle," Matthew Haydn chirped in the commentary box. Captain Kohli would have been forgiven for throwing his toys out of the pram, as another batsman had failed to provide de Villiers with support.
Therein lay the Lions' problem. They'd got rid of Gayle, they'd got rid of Kohli, but AB was still there — like the mythical three-headed dog Cerebus, this beast still had a head left. All the South African needed was someone to stick with him — he'd do the rest — and he found one in Abdullah. In a big match like this, with a place in the grand final at stake, de Villiers was the man upon whom the ultimate role of hero was cast. He seemed unstoppable, and the Lions were powerless to stifle him as he took RCB from a hopeless position to one of triumph with plenty to spare.
It was a matchless innings; and an intoxicating match, a game that showed that T20 cricket is as capable of remarkable ebbs and flows as the longer formats. And like the older, more traditional forms of the game, it provides heroes too.
Best of luck to Royal Challengers Bangalore in the final. However, I still expect to see the Lions there on Sunday, attempting to exact their revenge.
Updated Date: May 25, 2016 12:07 PM