STEVE SMITH wanted to field first. His dug-out wanted him to bat. But as the Rising Pune Supergiant skipper walked out for the toss at the M. Chinnaswamy Stadium that evening, he was adamant about sticking with his gut. Luckily for Pune, Smith called it wrong in the middle and Virat Kohli duly gave the Supergiant camp their wish by putting them in on a tricky wicket. It was probably the first time fortune had favoured Pune during the season.
IPL X was still in its second week at that point. But Pune were already staring down the barrel. They had landed in Bangalore after three straight defeats. They had batted first at Rajkot, incidentally, in their latest loss in which Andrew Tye snared a hat-trick and Gujarat Lions chased down a competitive total without breaking sweat. The clash against RCB was to be their last before a six-day break. A fourth loss would not only mean a trip to the bottom but also that the rest of the pack would have left them far behind, perhaps for good, by the time they resurfaced.
The season itself had gone pear-shaped after an inauspicious build-up. The management had thought it wise to make an unpopular change at the top by replacing MS Dhoni, of all people, with Smith, who at that point had emerged as Indian cricket’s irrepressible bête noire. The Rs 14.5 crore they’d spent on Ben Stokes had only won them ridicule with many already referring to it as a cavalier investment. That they were no longer called themselves Supergiants but just Supergiant had not just made them sound odd, but also like there was something missing already.
Perhaps what was missing was a clear plan to make up for a disastrous debut season. They’d started as confused and out of sorts like last year – despite Smith getting them over the line single-handedly in the opening game – with incessant team changes and no fixed formula as to their make-up. And to boot, their premier pacer, Ashoke Dinda, at that stage boasted of a bowling average of 119 and an economy of 11.9.
At the halfway stage at Bangalore back in April, Smith was still regretting having lost the toss. He wasn’t confident about the target of 162 his team had set for RCB’s mighty batting line-up. Dinda wasn’t in the playing XI here. It was, in fact, the first time Jaydev Unadkat and Shardul Thakur – two young Indian pacers whose IPL careers have been in limbo forever – were sharing the new ball for Pune. Unadkat and Thakur ended up sharing five wickets between them while Imran Tahir removed AB de Villiers. It was also the night Stokes showed the first real glimpse of why not just Pune, but most of the franchises were prepared to spend half their overall purse for his services two months earlier at the auction. He took three wickets, including that of Virat Kohli as Pune won comfortably by 27 runs to go into their break two rungs from the bottom.
30 minutes changed the season
That hour-and-a-half at Chinnaswamy turned their season around. For the first time since their inception, RPS seemed to have identified personnel for roles with conviction rather than hope. Unadkat and Thakur would go on to become regular fixtures with the left-arm pacer finishing the league stages as the second highest wicket-taker in IPL X with 21 scalps. Tahir wouldn’t be far behind with 18, and most importantly, Pune’s big buy would turn into their Supergiant, just like his price tag had suggested. The joke was on everyone else.
Their batting was taking shape, too, with Rahul Tripathi getting them off to fast starts, Smith doing what he does best and Manoj Tiwary providing unsung but crucial contributions. And aptly it was Dhoni who set off Pune’s super rise by beating Sunrisers Hyderabad at his game — a last-ball finish with everything on the line. The match also saw the emergence of 17-year-old Washington Sundar as a run-blocking off-spinner and veteran Daniel Christian, who’s taken 9 wickets at an economy of 7, as the enforcer in the middle overs.
The tide was turning. They won six out of seven matches post the RCB win, and soared into playoff contention before sealing second spot in style with a routing of Kings XI Punjab last Sunday. Along the way, they also cracked the code of all three of their fellow playoff qualifiers. They won 5 out of 6 matches against Mumbai, Kolkata and Sunrisers — losing to KKR on an off night laced with poor catching at home. Dhoni would later speak about how the team had one motto: To ensure that the Pune crowds see their home team win for a change. And they only lost twice at home, while also breaching fortresses elsewhere. They were one of two teams to beat Mumbai at Wankhede, and the only one to beat Sunrisers in Hyderabad.
Like any successful side in a T20 league, their qualifier opponents Mumbai Indians being the prime example, Pune hardly felt the need to tinker with their playing XI once they had all their boxes ticked. No team changed its line-up more often than Pune last year, in comparison. In one game when Stokes was injured, he was replaced by Faf du Plessis. And the South African mainstay didn’t even get a hit after being slated to bat at No.8. It was as if they didn’t need a replacement. Du Plessis was like the default and inevitable white foreigner you find at most big, fat Indian weddings these days.
Pune won’t find it easy, though, to breach Mumbai’s stronghold at Wankhede for a second time this season. It has as much to do with the momentum that Rohit Sharma & Co are carrying in this campaign as the loss of Stokes and Tahir, the two men most responsible for their team’s turnaround. The rout of Punjab was, ironically, an ode to Stokes as they let him take it easy on his final day as an RPS player. The two-hour bus ride on Monday afternoon would have been spent deciding upon whether they bring in Usman Khawaja to make up for Stokes, the batsman, or Lockie Ferguson to make up for Stokes, the bowler, just to illustrate how much they’ll miss their talisman. Not to forget having to break their perfect combination to accommodate the change. If only they had the depth that Mumbai possess, that too in plenty.
But in a season where they have surprised opponents, experts and at times their own captain – him more pleasantly than others – you write off the Supergiant and their rise at your own peril.