Before the last set of fixtures in the league stage of the Indian Premier League began on Saturday, Rajasthan Royals and Kings XI Punjab had the most daunting tasks ahead of them to make the top four. By the time, MS Dhoni flipped the coin in Pune in match No 56 (well, actually a few minutes later), it came down to those teams for the fourth spot.
As Royal Challengers Bangalore and Mumbai Indians failed to make their net-run-rate advantage count, R Ashwin’s men had a chance turn their season around and they needed to defeat Chennai Super Kings by 53 runs to sneak through.
But what transpired in Pune was a combination of the bizarre and, ultimately, the expected as CSK ensured a top-two finish and allowed Royals a chance to celebrate an unlikely place in the playoffs.
Not your usual T20 game
Right from the word go, it became evident Punjab’s task was not going to be an easy one. The pitch in Pune had a tinge of green to it and was reminiscent of the track that saw Sri Lanka stun India in a T20I at this very venue in February, 2016. There was plenty of assistance for the seam bowlers that night, as Sri Lanka bundled India out for 105, and it seemed the story was going to be similar for the Punjab batting lineup as Deepak Chahar and Lungi Ngidi provided sights that wouldn’t have been out of place in a first session of a Test match at Lord’s.
There was a swing, there was deviation off the pitch, there was bounce and good carry on offer. And it made for fascinating viewing. KXIP’s best chance of a 53-run win was to put significant runs on the board and they needed their two best batsmen, Chris Gayle and KL Rahul to score the bulk of those. As it turned out, Gayle went for a duck in the second over, gloving one to Dhoni down the leg side and walking, as the umpire didn’t seem like he was going to give that out.
And a couple of overs later, Ngidi bowled perhaps the ball of the tournament so far to arguably the best batsman of this year’s IPL, as Rahul shouldered arms to a good length delivery that nipped back in sharply and knocked back his off stump. In between these two dismissals, Aaron Finch got one that seamed away from length and took his outside edge, only for Suresh Raina to take a sharp catch, head-high at wide first slip.
Just like that, Punjab were down to 16/3 in the powerplay. And their three best batsmen succumbed to the liveliest pitch that we have seen in IPL this year.
To add to the bizarre happenings, later in the innings, Ngidi even made Dhoni go for DRS when the skipper didn’t even appeal for a caught behind off Ashwin. How many times have we seen that happen? Ask Kuldeep Yadav, who was once not even met with eye contact when he thought an LBW decision was worth a review as Dhoni was already ready for the next ball. On Sunday though, Dhoni went ahead and reviewed with a cheeky smile on his face, and lo and behold, Ngidi was right. He had heard a knick that everyone seemed to have missed.
This was not a night that was going according to anyone’s script.
Dhoni goes for ‘chaos’
Thanks to a fighting Karun Nair half century (again, unexpected) that came about six matches late for KXIP, they managed to cross 150 on the night. (Imagine Nair finding form in the middle phase of the season when Ashwin’s men were woefully over-dependent of Rahul and Gayle. Oh, well.) The equation was now clear. Dismiss the best batting lineup of this IPL for less than 100.
And for a while there, the KXIP bowlers made that seem a possibility.
Just like Chahar and Ngidi earlier, Punjab’s seamers got the new white ball to talk. If Ngidi bowled the perfect inswinger to the prolific Rahul, the equally prolific Ambati Rayudu got the perfect away-swinger which he could only edge behind. To get that big breakthrough early in the run-chase would have been a shot in the arm for Punjab, and they had the bowlers in their rank to cause more trouble. Wickets of Faf du Plessis and Sam Billings soon followed – both Test match dismissals. It even prompted Harsha Bhogle to comment excitedly, “what a session of cricket this has been,” and whether intentionally or otherwise, he captured the essence of what was happening. Billings dismissal, especially – where Ankit Rajpoot got the ball to straighten from a good length and hit the top of off stump – would have made Dale Steyn, the red-ball bowler, proud.
That’s when Dhoni decided it was time to add some ‘chaos’ to the mix.
Harbhajan Singh came out to bat at No 5. He was dropped off his second ball, he then hogged the strike, he kept Raina away from Punjab’s seamers, he kept swinging at every ball that came his way, he managed to even connect with a few, and he confused everyone who was watching. More importantly, he seemed to have confused the Punjab bowlers. Who were suddenly trying to bounce him out and not bowl the ‘Test match length’ that worked so well till then.
And when Harbhajan’s breezy cameo came to an end, Deepak Chahar walked out. More confusion, more chaos. But once he got his eye in, Chahar, an all-rounder of good reputation in the domestic circuit, showed what he is capable of. Within the space of two overs, where Chahar hit three sixes, Chennai ensured themselves a top-two finish and eliminated Punjab from the playoffs race.
“If you see their bowlers, they were getting it to swing quite a bit,” Dhoni explained after the match. “In a game like this you want to take a lot of wickets while it is swinging. So with Bhajji and Chahar going in - it creates a bit of chaos. With proper batsmen the bowlers are consistent, somehow to lower order players they try the bouncers, offcutters, etc.”
Mission, for the night, accomplished.
An expected end
But there was still a game to be won or lost. Imagine, then, being in the Punjab camp, with the wind knocked out of your sails, and to see MS Dhoni walk out to bat during a run-chase. The equation was 40 from 23 balls, thanks to Chahar’s cameo. And Dhoni, along with Raina, did what he does best. Take the team deep and finish it off in style.
Raina, who played sheet anchor when Harbhajan and Chahar were doing their thing, got to express himself in the end, taking the attack to AJ Tye. In an over he hit two sixes and two overs, Raina played a text-book forward defence off the last ball, with CSK needing 1 run to win from 7 balls. Understandably, he wanted the captain to have the final say on the night.
And what did Dhoni do? Finish the match off in style, of course. A six over fine leg, and CSK eventually romped to a five-wicket win. A finish to the league stage that we have seen many a time before, but what preceded was anything but expected.