You would think there are no surprises in professional cricket any more. Video analysts graph out every move the players make. The media analyses not just every word, but every shake of the head, every drop of the shoulder, reading into a language without a dictionary. Algorithms predict where each ball will be bowled by which bowler, and where it will be hit by which batsman.
But Thursday’s game between the hosts Rising Pune Supergiant (RPS) and the Mumbai Indians (MI) threw up more surprises than most foresaw.
The biggest one came at the toss. Faf du Plessis was billed by most pundits (including myself) to be a first-choice pick in the XI. But he was left out in favour of two overseas spinners, despite —and probably because of — the pitch being a good one to bat on. Du Plessis has played just one T20I for South Africa in the last year, but has been in good form in the ODI format, besides being the Proteas T20I captain. So it was a surprise to see him on the bench, considering that he and Ajinkya Rahane made a good opening partnership last year.
The RPS bowlers were the recipients of the next big surprise, as Jos Buttler came out to bat at the top of the order for MI, instead of their captain Rohit Sharma. Buttler had batted in the middle-order last year, but his presence in the opening slot made an immediate impact. He toyed with the field, and along with Parthiv Patel, carted the RPS bowlers around to rack up 41 runs in the first four overs.
Then there was RPS captain Steve Smith’s decision to bring on Imran Tahir in the powerplay. Rarely do you see leg spinners bowl without the cushion of more than two fielders on the boundary, not only does it leave more gaps for the batsmen to expose, but it also takes away their attacking options: players on the boundary serve as catching fielders for mishits. But Smith had little choice, with the MI batsmen dining on his pace bowlers. Ironically, their profligacy paved the way for their wickets, as Tahir’s deception claimed the top three (all three fell to googlies), setting the brakes on an onslaught that could have gone into freefall.
“Both of them (Adam Zampa and Tahir) are attacking leg spinners,” said Rahane after the game on the decision to play them both. “They look to take wickets, and that’s very important in T20 games. Zampa did really well for us last season, and Tahir is a world class leg spinner.”
Also, surprising was MS Dhoni dropping a catch, but more on him later.
Then there were the parts that were so unsurprising, they were almost predictable: Ashok Dinda going for runs at the death for instance. After Tahir and Zampa had tied down the Mumbai innings, and helped keep them down to 154 after 19, Dinda earned a record that he would happily give away for free: the most runs conceded by a bowler in an IPL last over, thanks singlehandedly to the belligerent Hardik Pandya. Dinda now owns three of the six most expensive final overs in IPL history, and as RPS’s most experienced Indian quick, poses some selection headaches.
Also unsurprising, was Rahane scoring runs. If his innings had been an exhibition, there would have been a section dedicated to straight drives. His knock of 60 in 34 balls was his fastest ever IPL fifty, shaking off suggestions about his ability to score quickly that had lingered last year despite him being the team’s highest scorer. The standout shot was a lofted drive over cover that seemed to have a message to the Indian selectors, who dropped him from the national T20 side, written all over it: I can bat like this too.
Also unsurprising was the fact that Dhoni was at the crease when the winning runs were scored. Indian cricket’s greatest finisher looked scratchy though, playing out a few dot balls in an excellent penultimate over from Jasprit Bumrah to leave 13 to get off the final over. The match did provide and excellent example of his undiminished game sense: on the last ball of the 19th over, he should have been caught at the boundary. As the ball was in the air, he fought the instinct to cross the non-striker, and had Smith stay where he was, so that should Dhoni get out, the best batsman in the world would remain on strike. Only after the ball was dropped on the rope did Dhoni attempt the run.
And then there was the inevitability of Smith scoring runs. In the preceding Tests, Smith rarely looked like he would get out, and rarely did the bowlers seem to have a plan for him. Just a month ago, the circumstances were different in every possible way. The ball was red, the kit was white, and the pitch made Vidarbha look like a water park. This time, the ball was white, the kit was (not exactly sure what colour that is? Purple and peach?) But the result was the same, a match-winning knock by the captain.
“It’s a nice place to bat, here,” he said at the presentation, after playing his first T20 match since the last edition of the IPL. But time stands still for those in form; they can make absences from one format look smaller, and the mental adjustments required easier. Smith’s innings was the archetypical well-paced T20 chase: steady to being with, gaining in momentum, and an explosive finish.
“Form is form anywhere I guess,” said Smith, of shifting between formats. “Got to make the most of it though.”
Both Smith and Dhoni seemed unconcerned by the number of runs required in the last over. They knew that MI were a bowler short. “We always knew they would have to bowl one over with spinner or (Kieron) Pollard and that was what we would target,” said Smith after the game. His two sixes at the end stitched up a good night overall for the Pune team, who lost all seven home games they played last year. With a new captain, and a new team combination, they will be keen to build a fortress at the MCA Stadium.
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Updated Date: Apr 07, 2017 10:09:49 IST