It was the turnaround that always should have happened, but very few thought would. How could a team with the World’s No 1 batsman, Steve Smith, World’s No 1 T20I bowler Imran Tahir, and undisputed best all-rounder, Ben Stokes, not succeed? And yet that is exactly what looked like would happen early in the tournament.
Finally, on a balmy Sunday evening, Ajinkya Rahane skipped down the pitch and timed the ball politely, requesting it to go over mid-wicket for six. After more than 40 days of drama, including a last-minute knockout game, those six runs took Rising Pune Supergiant past not just Kings XI Punjab, but also past Kolkata Knight Riders and Sunrisers Hyderabad. But so long ago, when the tournament began, it looked so unlikely.
RPS, after a surprise opening win against the Mumbai Indians, had slumped to three straight defeats. Those included a 97-run drubbing by Delhi Daredevils, and being at the receiving end of a hat-trick against Gujarat Lions. So far, their season was going exactly as the previous one had; 2016 had seen them finish seventh, with just five wins.
Smith could not single-handedly win games. MS Dhoni seemed to have lost his mojo. And Stokes was increasingly looking like a mounting credit card bill with no way to pay it.
Teams like Mumbai Indians have taught us that overseas players are fine, but you really need your Indian players to succeed, to convince success to stay a while. Enter Rahul Tripathi, who masked Rahane’s unwillingness to go for the big shots. Tripathi plugged one of the two major lacunae for RPS: scoring quickly in the powerplay. This season, he has averaged 32 with a strike rate of over 150. And when we say averaging 32, he really has. After his first game, he scored more than 30 in seven out of eight games. Suddenly RPS had an upgraded version of Rahane: Just as dependable, and faster out of the blocks.
His starts helped them to an unlikely win, defending 161 against batting powerhouse Royal Challengers Bangalore in their own den. That was the game where the experiment with two leg spinners was shelved, and Jaydev Unadkat and Dan Christian came in. The pair are different yet alike, Christian using a variety of slower ones from the same angles, and Undakat using the same cutter from different angles. Christian also made the batting order a little longer.
Then against Sunrisers Hyderabad, Dhoni — kingpin amongst the Indian players — found his touch again, almost singlehandedly chasing down 176. Fans across franchises were delighted. Easily the most popular player in the IPL, the tournament is richer with Dhoni in form.
Unadkat, Shardul Thakur, Stokes and Dan Christian became the key bowlers, but Tahir needed support, and Smith needed a spinner in the powerplay. Cue Washington Sundar, the 17-year-old who was chosen as R Ashwin’s replacement, to take his opportunity.
Sundar made the India U-19 team as a batting all-rounder, but here he was brought in specifically to counter the left-handed openers of Sunrisers Hyderabad with his off spin. He made a case for retention, going at just six runs an over despite bowling three in the powerplay. He has been in the side ever since. His spells in the powerplay allowed Smith greater options at the death, helping plug the other big lacuna for the RPS: death bowling. Thanks to the 17-year-old, RPS were a balanced team. Like the last few seconds of a Rubik’s Cube challenge, you could see everything falling into place.
RPS strung together eight wins in their last 10 matches. Being a new team, they were bound to register a number of firsts. Unlike 2016, these were firsts they would not mind boasting about. They managed to register their first win at home, having lost every home game last season. They bowled an opposition out for the first time ever when they shot out Gujarat for 161 in Pune. In the same game, Stokes registered the first ever hundred for the franchise. Tripathi almost got another one in the next game against KKR, part of his six scores of 30 plus in a row.
The same match saw them post their highest powerplay score of 74. Unadkat picked up the first hat-trick for the team, and has picked up at least one wicket in every match he has played in. The 161 they defended at the Chinnaswamy was a record on that ground for a visiting team.
All this means that RPS now have two bites at IPL immortality. Of the other three teams in the playoffs, they have beaten two of them twice this year, including Mumbai who they start against. This means little in the T20 format, but RPS will not complain.
But they will be without two of their chief architects, Stokes and Tahir, both recalled for national duty. The performance of their Indian players now becomes even more vital.
This season has been a little bit of a fairytale. Now RPS fans, after a torturous last year, will be hoping for a happy ending.
Updated Date: May 15, 2017 13:14 PM