“So, it was very clear decision and strategy. We had decided that this is the one guy we are going to go and our budget was Rs 15 crore.” Rising Pune Supergiant owner Sanjiv Goenka said after the 2016 debutants paid Rs 14.50 crore for England all-rounder Ben Stokes at the IPL 2017 auctions. (Results | Fixtures | Points Table)
There was, understandably, a lot of interest every time Stokes was introduced into the attack or came out to bat. The Englishman got off to a decent start in the tournament but the ‘impact contribution’, which everyone looks for from the highest-paid, was still missing. The big moment came in the modest defence against Mumbai Indians and the seamer’s figures of 2/21, when Rohit Sharma was still out there in the middle, drew a lot of praise and would have eased some money-tag pressure.
It wasn’t ideal post that as a sore shoulder kept him out of action for a couple of games and raised speculations that the ECB could well call him back keeping the Champions Trophy, less than a month away now, in mind. That wasn’t the case, and Stokes returned. And how.
Chasing 162, Pune were reeling at 42/4 against Gujarat. Runs were there to be scored and it definitely was the moment for Stokes to deliver and live up to the expectations of the owners, fans and captain Steve Smith. Most, at max, would have expected a quick-fire 40-50 from the left-hander but very few would have predicted that 63-ball 103*, under immense pressure. MS Dhoni was clearly struggling at the other end and it was Stokes-or-nothing for the Pune unit. He hit the ball at a strike rate of over 160 and earned the crucial points for his side, eyeing a top-four finish after a poor start to their IPL journey last year.
“He’s a perfect fit for our team, particularly after Mitchell Marsh was ruled out as well. He’s done a terrific job for us. We paid a big amount to get him. We know he’s a quality player. [He] certainly earned his cash tonight,” Smith, in very few words, shut the critics who were mocking the hefty price-tag for the English all-rounder.
Last week clearly just wasn’t about Stokes and Rs 14.5 crore. Cheap buys are working for Pune, and helping the side keep the race to playoffs alive. Imran Tahir, bought at base price Rs 50 lakh, is certainly a steal and his game-changing overs are clearly reminding the other teams how they missed the bus. Forget Rs 50 lakh, there can’t be a better scalp than Rahul Tripathi, at just Rs 10 lakh. The opener is consistently giving Pune breezy starts at top of the order and has been one of the top finds this season. He has already piled up a string of 30+ scores and just needs to focus for long enough to get his name up there with the top batsmen this season.
Kohli, AB de Villiers, Chris Gayle, Shane Watson and a likely wooden spoon finish. Not the ideal place to be in for the 2016 runners-up but they have just not clicked, individually and as a unit. The bowling was under a lot of criticism last season but it’s the batting which has let them down this year.
The top three’s consistent inconsistency are making the road up the ladder nearly an impossible one. The bowlers – spinners in particular – have done the job for them this season but string of ordinary team scores gives them very few runs to play with.
From David Warner to Steve Smith to Gautam Gambhir to Rohit Sharma to Virat Kohli, most captains have had good outings in the middle. There has been someone like Glenn Maxwell too, who continues to bowl hot and cold, but most are sorted with the leadership act. Warner and Gambhir are clearly leading from the front and their intent with the bat and intensity while leading the team is heartening to see. With a couple of 70s and 126 against KKR, Warner is right up there when it comes to being the most dangerous batsmen this season but Gambhir’s contributions can’t be ignored too.
Naturally aggressive, the left-hander is operating like a cool customer when he comes out to bat. Seldom has he been found under pressure of the asking rate and allows his batting partner to take the powering role. He is at his best when it comes to keeping the scoreboard ticking and finding the odd boundary. And, how well has he done that this season.