It was supposed to be a customary pre-match chat on the sidelines. But R Ashwin turned it into a pugilist’s weigh-in complete with the trash-talk and posturing. He declared with every bit of a boxer’s bravado that he was ready for his next punch-out with Glenn Maxwell come Friday.
His rehearsed punchline came with a theatrical pause to boot, and only once he was done with the customary ‘we bowled well, they batted well,’ monologue. “Hold on,” he told the interviewer, “Maxwell can expect me to bowl more over the wicket in the next game.” This after he had bowled 24 balls from around the wicket to the destructive Australian earlier in IPL7 and been carted for 64 runs, including being smashed for five fours and four sixes.
On most days, it doesn’t take much to get Ashwin riled up, or for his uber-combative to surface. So far this IPL, Maxwell has not just gotten under his skin, he has pretty much gotten into his head.
So much so that the ambidextrous Kings XI Punjab master-blaster has made India’s No.1 spinner look nothing short of clueless, ever since he switch-hit the first delivery he faced from him for four in the UAE. Ashwin’s bewilderment has especially come through each time he has slipped down generous wides down the leg-side while anticipating a pre-emptive strike from his nemesis’ bat. And Maxwell has rubbed it in by indulging in a churlish giggle on each of those occasions.
A lot more than usual
Friday’s Qualifier at Wankhede Stadium will not be just about Ashwin and Maxwell, however. There will be 20 other men wearing canary yellow and a combination of silver and red too out there doing battle.
But it was Maxwell who proved to be the real difference between Chennai and Punjab when they met in the league stages. He scored 95 off 43 when the table-toppers chased down 206 in their opening match and then bludgeoned 90 in 38 to set up Kings XI’s mammoth total of 231/4 in Cuttack. His dismissal at Wankhede could well be the seminal moment of the contest after all. The twist in the tale that decides the eventual outcome, and reveals the identity of Kolkata Knight Riders’ opponents in Bangalore on Sunday night.
This will also be a grudge match of sorts as Chennai will be desperate to show them that they are still the biggest dogs in the yard, despite all the noise that Punjab have made this season.
A win for Chennai would mean them reaching their fifth straight IPL final with Punjab keen on making it through for the first time in seven seasons. This will only be the second time in fact that Kings XI will find themselves in a win or perish scenario in their IPL history, having last competed in a semifinal back in 2008 under the captaincy of Yuvraj Singh.
Clash of ideologies
It will also be a clash of two ideologies. Chennai’s meticulous and clockwork precision against the gung-ho spirit of Punjab, led by the redoubtable Maxwell. Both teams have shown a few sparks of similarity, especially with their hell for leather approach with bat in hand.
But where Punjab have shown a fallibility is in the few occasions that the likes of Maxwell, David Miller and the openers haven’t come to the party, their loss against KKR on Wednesday being a prime example.
Chennai in contrast, despite having lost three matches on the trot and being deposed from their long-standing second spot on the table, do seem to possess a characteristically more settled middle-order, with David Hussey having added plenty of muscle to it. While the form of Maxwell and Miller, the destroyers in the early part of the competition, has been on the wane of late; Suresh Raina & Co just seem to be peaking at the right time.
The Wankhede with its short boundaries, like it did on Sunday, should provide both power-packed batting units with the perfect setting for a six-hitting shootout.
In Mahendra Singh Dhoni and George Bailey, the two outfits are also led by similarly undemonstrative and nonplussed skippers, who back their skills and temperament to add clinical finishing touches.
Dhoni has remained a sleeping giant, flexing his broad muscles whenever the situation has demanded.
In contrast, except for a couple of breathtaking cameos, Bailey is yet to bail his team out of a tricky situation. Friday could be the perfect platform for the Australian to set the record straight. Especially, if Ashwin does follow up on his threat and has the final laugh in this game of oneupmanship against a man who’s got the better of him till now.
Just for the record, the one time Ashwin did dismiss Maxwell, during the Australian’s debut Test last year in Hyderabad, he had come to bowl over the wicket.
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