IPL 9: Finch drags unconvincing Gujarat Lions over the line against Mumbai Indians
The Lions' batting stuttered, when it should have made short work of the target, and for a third successive game were reliant on an Aaron Finch 50 to win
Well, they made hard work of that! It's three games, three wins for the Gujurat Lions. A hundred per cent record. They ought to be pleased. But after this game, their immediate reaction will be one of relief.
This was a poor performance, but an important victory. Few championships or leagues in any sport can be won without a loss somewhere along the way. Rarer still is a season's triumph that doesn't include a win on a day when you've played badly.
In football, in a long, hard campaign, there will be days when nothing quite clicks: When passes go astray, shots are off target, mistakes are plentiful — but yet, you come out on top. That is the mark of champions. Many a time, great Liverpool or Manchester United sides, deep in an English winter, found themselves on a heavy pitch against keen, committed opponents, and themselves played as though they had their feet tied together — but nevertheless engineered a scrappy, narrow one-nil victory somehow. On Saturday night at the Wankhede stadium, the Lions did much the same.
They began well. Their confidence gained from two top-class performances was evident in most of the first half of the Mumbai Indians' innings. The bowling was sharp and accurate, and the fielding alert. Indeed, it was a noticeable improvement on their previous outings. In particular, wicket-keeper Dinesh Karthik, who'd been uncharacteristically clumsy with his glove-work in the first two encounters, pulled off a brilliant leg-side stumping, off a wide, to dismiss the dangerous Jos Buttler.
And once again, Suresh Raina's captaincy was excellent. He used his attack thoughtfully, and rotated his resources with a deft hand. After eleven overs, Mumbai were 62-4, and his best bowler, Dwayne Bravo was yet to bowl. He is quickly becoming one of best tacticians in the IPL.
After 16 overs, the opposition were even more poorly placed at 88-6. It was maybe a little too easy — and in the field they relaxed. The Lions dozed off — and they are far less intimidating beasts when asleep. Maintaining his side's focus and concentration is an art the skipper needs to add to his repertoire.
At this point, Raina made what was probably his first mistake of the competition. Rather than turn to either Shadab Jakati or Pravin Tambe, who had again been splendidly frugal, he opted for James Faulkner. The Australian has a lot of experience in T20 cricket behind him, but he had been below-par in this tournament until now. It was a surprise move, and it backfired.
Faulkner has been a liability. His control appears to have deserted him, and while he has plentiful variations, his assortment lacks the accuracy of Bravo. What he served up was a random mixed bag of easy pickings. Early on, he nearly fortuitously induced Parthiv Patel to pull a rank long hop onto his wicket. "Another night, that goes onto the stumps," declared Danny Morrison. Another night, that also disappears into the crowd.
From the last four overs, Mumbai Indians plundered 55 runs. In their first two games, the Lions had successfully stifled potent pairings such as David Miller and Glenn Maxwell, and Faf du Plessis and Kevin Pietersen. Krunal Pandya and Tim Southee should not, therefore, have proved to be a problem. But Dwayne Bravo lost his usually tight line, and Faulkner went to pieces — managing to bowl an out-of-reach beamer at one point; and over-stepping and simultaneously bowling a wide later. These were the first signs of buckling under pressure the Lions had displayed in three games.
Thankfully, the fielding didn't succumb, and off the last ball of the innings, young Akshdeep Nath produced a brilliant leap to pull down and flick back a hit heading for six, which instead was only two. In retrospect, it was a match-winning moment.
The Lions' batting stuttered, when it should have made short work of the target of 144, and for a third successive game they were reliant on an Aaron Finch half-century to get them over the line. He batted throughout the innings, and hit the winning strike from the game's last ball. His side will be concerned, however, that he appeared to pull a thigh muscle, and his fitness will be in doubt for their next match. Ironically, he over-stretched it in scampering back for a two at the end of the 18th over. It cost him the strike, and may cost him his place. It also nearly cost the Lions the match.
Mitchell McClenaghan's excellent 19th over very nearly turned the game his team's way, and he was unfortunate with figures of 4-21 to end up on the losing side.
Much can be learned from defeat, and likewise from victory. The Lions have a strong and varied attack, but maybe don't need six specialist bowlers. They are, however, probably a batsman light. They were without Ravindra Jadeja — allowed time off to get married this weekend — although his replacement Dhawal Kulkarni, bowled very well, fielded gamely, and made a crucial contribution with the bat at the death. His all-round efforts went a long way to securing the win — a nice wedding present for Jadeja.
But the balance of the side would be improved if the Lions made a switch and left Faulkner out for Barbados's Dwayne Smith. A batting all-rounder for a bowling one, he'd still provide Raina with an option with the ball; and would be a vast improvement in the middle-order on Faulkner, who is misfiring with the bat as much as he is with the ball.
It's some food for thought.
At the end of the day though, the Gujurat Lions can look back on a hard-fought win, regroup, and look forward to their next challenge.
I doubt they will be caught napping again.
Russell is currently in the UAE to take part in the remainder of PSL 2021 that was suspended in March following COVID-19 cases inside its bubble.
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