It was like KL Rahul and Sarfaraz Khan were attempting to impersonate MS Dhoni in his prime—tick along through the middle overs, keep the equation within the reach and complete the chase with a thunderous bang. Only that their impersonation went horribly wrong, in the end reducing them to resemble overstrung novices. It was also a statutory warning that, unless you are outrageously calm or exceptionally courageous like Dhoni, attempting Dhoni is best avoided.
So in the final summing up of Kings XI’s 22-run defeat, it’s fair enough to surmise that Rahul’s 55 off 47 deliveries and Sarfaraz Khan’s 67 off 59 turned out to be counterproductive. For strike-rates of 117 and 113, unless a team is chasing less than 130, ring hollow. Their initial crawl was understandable, as they had lost Chris Gayle and Mayank Agarwal inside the first two overs. But even after they engineered the recovery, they made negligible efforts to rev up the tempo. True that the surface progressively slowed, and the spin trio stifled them, still Rahul and Sarfaraz shouldn’t have let the game jump out of their bounds.
At the end of the 12th over, the equation (70 off 48) seemed like a stroll. But in the next five overs, all the could eke out was 21 overs. Ravindra Jadeja did what he customarily does in this format—peppering balls on the off-stump, on the same spot, as if on a string. Imran Tahir kept altering his pace and length, while Harbhajan out-read the batsmen’s intentions with the felicity of a mind-reader. Together, they gave only 61 for 4 off 12
But as pragmatically intuitive as their bowling was, Rahul and Sarfaraz didn’t attempt the jailbreak. The latter did unfurl the reverse sweep (though it bargained for singles), but generally they waited for the storm to pass by rather than spawning one of their own. Surprising, as both of them are equipped with boundary-fetching strokes of spinners, and there were big-hitters like Sam Curran and David Miller down the order too. Dhoni does all these and still retrieves the match, but Punjab’s pair are not quite Dhoni mettle. And as with impersonations, a bad one can look like an imitation, as Rahul and Sarfaraz were made to look like.
Ashwin’s bittersweet homecoming
In his homecoming—the first as an adversary—his best efforts to woo the crowd went unrequited. He entered the ground applauding the audience and gesturing them to cheer for his team. He met with mute retort. After the toss, he explained the emotional resonance of the fixture before he slipped in a cheeky line: “I’m looking for the crowd to back us, which I guess is not going to happen!” A stoic silence met his words, before those were drowned out by hysteric Dhoni chants.
Ashwin, after all, would be familiar with the disconnect. Even during his peak CSK years, it was Dhoni who was the home favourite, rather than the original home-boy Ashwin. He had even touched upon the paradox, jokingly, during an interview: “The Chennai crowd in IPL connects more with him than me, and sometimes I get envious.”
So Ashwin was perhaps not as shocked as he was surprised at the indifferent crowd—though he admitted it was quite an eerie feeling. But in the end it only turned out to be a spur-on, as he delivered his finest performance yet for Punjab, demonstrating adequately that his T20 expertise hasn’t waned as it was widely circulated. It was a vintage bowling effort, a throwback to his CSK days, when he stirred the perfect cocktail of discipline, smarts and deception, when he was Dhoni’s crisis man
When adversity winked on Punjab, he chose to counter it himself. Super Kings were rattling along at eight an over without losing a single wicket when he reintroduced himself. He struck with the second delivery, accounting for Shane Watson with a clever bit of bowling. Watson, he knows from experience, is a compulsive sweeper. So he pulled the length back, and landed it on off-stump, stifling him for room. Already committed to the stroke, Watson miscued to deep mid-wicket. His wicket wouldn’t have been bargained at a more opportune juncture, just when he was looking to bludgeon away with the match.
What was followed was a better sign of his comeuppance as a leader. Tempted as he might have been to continue bowling—he has always specified his fondness to exhaust his overs all at one go—he sensed the opportunity to let some of his younger bowlers squeeze in a few thrifty overs. The next three overs conceded only 18 runs. He re-summoned him in the 12th over, and though Suresh Raina smeared him for over his head, he avenged with the wickets of Raina and Faf du Plessis in his next over. He fooled Raina with the carrom ball before nabbing the South African with a quicker delivery.
But as shrewdly as Ashwin had bowled, he lacked support from his colleagues, barring his namesake Murugan Ashwin. None of them looked half as sharp or resourceful as them. One particular stat fully captured the telling disparity: Eight overs of the Ashwins went for 46/3 at 5.75 runs an over, remaining 12 overs for 114/0 at 9.5 runs. In the end, it made the difference, though Ashwin did his best to hide the disappointment. He applauded the crowd after the presentation ceremony. This time they couldn’t but reciprocate.