They tried pitching it full, they tried pitching it short. They went off-side, they went on-side. The straight yorker, the wide yorker and of course the bouncer. The boundary fielders were shifted after almost every delivery they bowled to him. But the result was the same almost every single time. The ball either sped to the fence or soared into the crowd. For, the ball, the bowler and probably everything else at the Wankhede Stadium were all just incidental to the blitzkrieg attack that Suresh Raina had launched on Kings XI Punjab.
For those 37 outrageous minutes on Friday night, there was only one man who seemed to be playing cricket. The rest were fetching balls.
Raina was wielding his bat like a man possessed. Yes, we had seen the Maxwells and the Millers break new horizons in terms of boundary-hitting previously in the tournament. Just an hour earlier in fact, Virender Sehwag had lit the IPL alive with an incredulously breathtaking century. But this was an assault like none seen before, and not just by IPL standards. This was carnage.
Six overs, 100 runs
There were drives, cuts, pulls, inside-out hits, flicks, slog-sweeps and clean hits that cleared the sight-screen with the bat coming down on the ball like a rapier on each occasion. If the Punjab bowlers were left stupefied, they weren’t the only ones. Close to 35,000 just sat gaping in awe and in utter disbelief. Few even noticed the scoreboard or the fact that Chennai were closing in on a century within the first half-dozen overs.
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By the end of the sixth over, in which 33 runs came off Awana’s bowling, Raina had single-handedly scored more runs in a powerplay than any team had managed to previously in the history of the IPL. He had smashed 18 boundaries off the 25 deliveries bowled to him. And he had smashed 87 out of the 100 that Chennai had scored in their first six in pursuit of an improbably 227. If anything, Raina seemed to be taking them there in double-quick time.
Then Raina was out. Against the run of play, and in the most anti-climactic of fashions. First ball after the Strategic Time-Out was taken at the end of the sixth over, Brendon McCullum called for a single after pushing the ball in the covers. Then he hesitated and ran. The pause was enough for George Bailey to pick up the ball, turn and throw the stumps down all in one motion with Raina agonizingly short of his crease despite an almighty dive.
The dream innings was over. Punjab’s nightmare had just come to an end. As Raina ambled off distraught after a 25-ball 87, the Kings XI were back in the game. Parity was restored. Punjab could breathe again. Wankhede had just got its breath back too.
Like always in the T20 format, it had taken one moment of inspiration to turn the game on its head. Only 48 runs were scored off the next eight overs, and with the required run-rate mounting, CSK had to concede defeat eventually losing by 24 runs. And for once, the chase proved to be too much for even CSK, and their redoubtable skipper.
There was to be no dream finish at the hands of Mahendra Singh Dhoni with the Punjab spinners restricting the powerful Chennai middle-order, and not allowing them to make the most of the momentum shift that Raina had provided with his blazing blade. Akshar Patel in particular enhanced his growing reputation with figures of 1/23 in a match where the ball was given a real battering.
On a day where Raina produced a modern-day miracle with the bat, it was Sehwag’s 58-ball 122 that ended up capturing the collective imagination of the Wankhede crowd. Not just because of the weight of the runs but for the sheer audacity with which they were scored. In the end, it was good enough to win Punjab their first-ever entry into an IPL final. That despite the Raina scare.
But while Raina was at the crease, he had not just overshadowed Sehwag’s return to form earlier in the day, but ensured that the dashing opener had been forgotten, even if only briefly. Unfortunately, it didn’t last long enough for Chennai to scale the insurmountable yet again.