Chennai Super Kings have not only ended their worst campaign on a bright note — winning their last three games — but have also terminated Kings XI Punjab’s frantic season. Tidy bowling restricted Punjab to 153/7 before methodical batting from Faf du Plessis and Ruturaj Gaikwad saw them surpass the score sans fuss.
The defeat to Chennai was symbolic of all that went wrong for Punjab. In decisive games, they flinched. In crunch situations, they cracked. And for all their batting wealth, their bowling is woefully deficient to influence games. Their brief sparkle was all but a false dawn.
Straightaway, they seemed over-keen, under too much self-induced pressure. Mayank Agarwal seemed in a tearing hurry and played one stroke too many. KL Rahul seemed to writhe under the crushing burden of captaincy. An unusual fear has replaced the usual joy his batting emanates. Even the usually clear-headed Chris Gayle was caught in an attack-or-blunt dilemma. The three galacticos departed, their already thin playoff hopes faded. Finally, it took Deepak Hooda’s clean-striking abilities to fish them out of humiliation. A score of 153 was at best middling, though cornered teams do tigerishly defend such totals.
But staggeringly, Punjab withered. The new-ball spell lacked intensity as well as hostility. Forget the pursuit of wickets, they gifted cheap runs. Jimmy Neesham lacked both pace and ingenuity, Mohammed Shami was uncharacteristically erratic and Chris Jordan seemed well past his peak years. Shami’s leg-side wide, so wide that Rahul could only watch the ball whistle past him in despair, was a moment that perfectly captured their lack of steam.
Compounding the woes, the fielding was sloppy. Ravi Bishnoi let a boundary slip under his body, soon after Hooda had let a catch slip out of his palms. The beneficiary, Faf du Plessis smacked a tempo-setting 48 off 34 balls and stitched an 82-run partnership with Ruturaj Gaikwad, who is increasingly looking the part after each game. It was typical Punjab —blinking in the big moments of the game.
It was ironic that the chief architects of the victory were Lungi Ngidi and Imran Tahir, two men largely peripheral to CSK’s plans this year. Ngidi was in the original scheme before a shellacking at the hands of Rajasthan Royals flushed him out of contention. Tahir had to wait till the back-end of the season to make an appearance. But both reminded the team management of their value in telling fashion.
Ngidi would own an unwanted record against his name this season — the most expensive of Chennai’s bowlers (economy rate 10.43). But no other colleague picked wickets at a better average (18.55) or strike rate (10.66). He demonstrated his wicket-taking prowess yet again by grabbing the scalps of Rahul and Agarwal, the two pillars of Punjab batting. Agarwal with a smartly-disguised off-cutter, and Rahul with a devilishly dipping slower-ball yorker. The two wickets decelerated Punjab’s playoff push. Pace and bounce might be his biggest weapons, but Ngidi has wedded those gifts with cunning and awareness. He could be a scattergun at times but could purchase wickets with the new ball. In ditching him prematurely, Chennai had shot themselves in the foot.
Likewise, the continued side-lining of Tahir seemed a faux pas. That Piyush Chawla and Karn Sharma ended up playing twice as many games as the South African was a clear strategic failure. He underlined yet again his virtues of thrift as well as wicket-taking potency. He foxed Chris Gayle with a slider, setting him up for the sweep with his googlies. Tahir was at his aggressive best, flaunting his whole bag of tricks and infusing a streak of intensity that Chennai had utterly missed in the middle overs.
Gayle’s was his only wicket of the series, but Tahir would grouse that he got only three games. That the South African pair would have made the difference to CSK’s fortunes is mere conjecture, but their scattered appearances do present a case for what could have been. If only they had persisted with Ngidi or introduced Tahir before they had reached the brink.
Brief scores: KXIP 153/6 in 20 overs (D Hooda 62, KL Rahul 29; L Ngidi 3/39) lost to CSK 154/1 in 18.5 overs (R Gaikwad 62*, F du Plessis 48, A Rayudu 30*; C Jordan 1/31) by 9 wickets
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