On Monday at Chepauk, Royal Challengers Bangalore needed 52 runs off their last 6 overs. It was a still a very manageable equation despite the loss of Virat Kohli to a run-out. There was enough fire-power left in their dug-out to keep Chennai Super Kings alarmed. It was a seminal moment in this clash of the IPL heavy-weights. MS Dhoni still had overs left from Mohit Sharma and Ravindra Jadeja — his go-to-guys at the World Cup. A couple of months ago, Down Under, he would have gone to one of them, without any qualms. But here, he threw the ball instead to Ashish Nehra.
A day later, Delhi Daredevils had galloped along to a quick-fire start against the Mumbai Indians — the score reading 43/0 in five overs. Rohit Sharma had seen the white ball fly to different parts of the Wankhede Stadium already. He needed to stem the flow. On came Harbhajan Singh.
It’s been a theme of IPL8 for both CSK and Mumbai. Team under-pressure, captain brings on his respective veteran, and the battle-hardened trooper delivers the KO.
Against RCB, Nehra played the part of the executioner to the hilt. In two overs, he conceded just six runs, knocked off three RCB batsmen — including Dinesh Karthik with his first delivery — and tightened the noose.
As for Harbhajan, he too struck with his first delivery, removing Shreyas Iyer and starting off with a maiden. Three overs on, he had completed his spell with figures of 2/11. Delhi never recovered.
Nehra’s last ODI was India’s World Cup semifinal in 2011. He was the eventual world champions’ most effective bowler that famous night at Mohali. Harbhajan’s most recent 50-over outing in India colours came a few months later in Antigua. The two WC-winners have since fallen out of favour with the selectors to the extent that they weren’t even part of the probables list when Dhoni & Co warmed-up for their title defence. They weren’t really in the wish-list of many fantasy-league aficionados either as the eighth edition of the IPL took off. In the last month or so, however, Nehra and Harbhajan it seems have rolled back the clock. They’ve been the talismans for their respective franchises with ball in hand. Nehra presently is on top of the wicket-takers’ list with 17 wickets at 15.35 apiece and an economy of 6.52. Harbhajan isn’t too far behind with 11 wickets at 24.63 and an economy if 7.52. But more importantly it’s been the match-turning impact they’ve had every time their skippers have looked for inspiration.
Nehra’s stunning show on Monday was the second time he had derailed RCB. In their previous encounter, the 36-year-old returned in the 17th over to remove Virat Kohli and Harshal Patel, finished with figures of 4/10 and sealed the deal. Against Mumbai at the Wankhede, he had returned in the 15th to dismiss Rohit Sharma and crush the home team’s hopes, just like he had at the Ferozshah Kotla in the season opener. In 10 matches, Nehra has bowled the 17th over on five occasions, and the 18th and 19th twice. In those, he’s only conceded two fours and two sixes. Almost always he’s picked up a wicket — thrice with his first delivery.
Harbhajan has bowled in the powerplay, in the death and thrice bowled out his quota on the trot during the crucial middle-overs where he has put the brakes on the opposition. Nehra has stumped batsmen of all ages with his pace variations and his ability to generate something off the wicket. Harbhajan, meanwhile, has bowled slower in the air than he has in many a year.
Like them, Praveen Kumar and Amit Mishra too have faded off the pedestal they once inhabited. In IPL 8, though, Praveen has bowled either the 19th or 20th over for Sunrisers Hyderabad in five out of the eight matches he’s played in. In those he has conceded only one four and two sixes — both in the same over — and has executed the yorker almost at will. Though overshadowed by Imran Tahir, Mishra has had his moments so far, deceiving batsmen with his googly. Having finally returned from injury, Zaheer Khan has already shown in three matches what Delhi had been missing with the ball — returning with figures of 2/17 against Kings XI Punjab.
And like Nehra and Harbhajan, they have proved that despite the Indian bowling attack having earned rave reviews in their absence during the World Cup Down Under, when the going gets tough in the IPL, it’s still the old guard who are keeping the faith.