Chennai Senior Kings. Dad’s army. Too old to win.
Before the IPL season began, even the most optimistic Chennai Super Kings fan would have had a sleepless night or two, considering how the team had recruited to mark their comeback to the league after serving two years of suspension.
Twenty20 being a young man’s game is a myth that has been busted many a time before, but it was usually by one man or maybe two in a team of otherwise fresh legs, brimming with youth. The Ashish Nehras, Michael Husseys, Gautam Gambhirs, Adam Gilchrists, and Brad Hoggs have long shown that age, and by extension, experience is not to be scoffed at in the shortest format. But even then to build a core that pushed the average age of the team beyond 30 was seen as folly.
Oh, how wrong we all were.
MS Dhoni, the 36-year-old talisman, who personified his side’s defiance of cricketing logic over the course of the season, on Sunday became an IPL champion for the third time in yellow. And at the heart of that triumph was a fellow 36-year-old journeyman T20 cricketer, Shane Watson.
The tournament that started with Dwayne Bravo, 34, playing a blinder and Kedar Jadhav, 33, finishing the match off on one leg with a torn hamstring when defeat seemed imminent at the Wankhede, ended with Watson, unable to run for most of his innings, finishing with just the second century scored in the history of IPL finals.
Fitting, would be an understatement.
More on Watson’s masterpiece shortly, but in all the excitement caused by his brutal hitting, the contribution of a certain youngster in this side of seniors shouldn’t be ignored. Lungisani Ngidi, 22 years old, once again put in a performance that belied his youth. Only recently having made his debut for South Africa, this was, quite possibly, the biggest game of his career till date.
Nerves? Pfft. He marked the occasion with a maiden over to the man who has scored the most number of runs in the IPL this year. Williamson was stifled for room as he played out six dot balls inside the Powerplay (beaten by swing in the air one time, when width was on offer) and Ngidi’s night was off to a cracking start.
But the best was yet to come. When Yusuf Pathan was going berserk at the end with Carlos Brathwaite for company, Ngidi bowled two overs in the death that went for 18 runs. On a night when Dwayne Bravo was once again getting carted around, finishing the tournament with yet another expensive spell, Ngidi stepped up and kept Sunrisers’ big hitters in check. His 19th over was especially fantastic, conceding just two runs off the first five balls before a Brathwaite mishit just about carried over long on for a six.
At one point, 190-plus seemed a given for SRH, but they had to make to do with 178 thanks to Ngidi’s four-over spell that went for 26 runs.
A spectacular innings
A job well begun is a job half done, they say. But going by that, Bhuvneshwar Kumar should have been celebrating a title win with his Sunrisers’ squad. A maiden over to start Chennai’s run-chase was extended to 10 dot balls on the trot against Watson. The Aussie looked clueless.
Kane Williamson could not have asked for a better start in defence of 179. Faf du Plessis, the hero from five days earlier for CSK, tried to get his side out of the hole they were seemingly digging themselves into, only to perish under mounting scoreboard pressure. Watson simply couldn’t get going.
Did Dhoni err by bowling first when, historically, 70% of IPL finals have been won by teams batting first? Did Dhoni play into Williamson’s hands by letting him unleash his mighty defenders to protect a par score in a high-stakes match? You’d not have been wrong to think those things given the scoreboard read 16/1 after four overs when Faf du Plessis walked back, with Watson batting on five off 13 balls.
But just in that fourth over, the gears had started to shift. A gift of a half volley from Sandeep Sharma was bludgeoned down the ground for four – a sign of things to come.
Williamson, eager to captialise on the fantastic start, gave Bhuvneshwar a third over in the Powerplay. He wanted to choke Chennai early. But Watson wouldn’t budge, not yet. Like a boxer taking punches in the early rounds to wear his opponent down, the Aussie waited. He moved to seven off 15 balls.
And then he let himself go.
In the next 15 balls, he scored 36. Sandeep Sharma was punished for erring in length. Siddharth Kaul was treated with disdain, pulled and driven to the boundary ropes. Rashid Khan got the respect he has earned, but no one else was spared. Shakib al Hasan was welcomed to the crease with a flat over midwicket for six.
Watson reached his 50 off 33 balls – 23 if you exclude the 10 dot balls that suddenly seemed a long time ago. By then, he was struggling to run between the wickets, and had made up his mind to stand and deliver, or perish trying.
And, then, the over that changed it all.
Sandeep Sharma will probably have nightmares about over No 13 of the 2018 IPL final for as long as he plays cricket. Before the over started, the equation for CSK read 75 needed off 48 balls. You’d still back SRH here. Rashid had two overs left, Bhuvneshwar had one. It was still an even game. But when the over was done, the equation came down to 48 needed off 42 balls. Twenty seven runs – two fours, three sixes. All around the ground. Over extra cover. Over long on. Over mid-wicket. Past third man.
That was it, really. There was no coming back from that. Not even for SRH.
“We talked a lot about age, but what’s more important is the fitness,” Dhoni said after the match. “If you ask most captains, they want players who move well on the field. Doesn’t matter if you’re 19-20 years old. We knew our shortcomings, and we were aware of it. If Watson tries to dive, he may injure his hamstring, so we don’t want him to do that. We’ve been aware of these things. Age is just a number...”
Dhoni couldn’t provide the finishing touch to the run-chase at Wankhede but, with those lines, he provided the fitting end to the season that Chennai Super Kings had. A self-aware, sturdy, well-oiled winning machine, CSK topped off a fairy-tale comeback to the league.