The headlines for Kings XI Punjab’s 22-run defeat against Chennai Super Kings on Saturday in the Indian Premier League were mostly along the lines of: “KXIP lose *despite* fifties by KL Rahul and Sarfaraz Khan.”

Despite, is one to way to put it. Perhaps more fitting would be to say: KXIP lost mostly because of fifties by Rahul and Sarfaraz.

As harsh as that sounds, to finish a run-chase of 161 with a score of 138/5 after playing the full quota of 20 overs, has got to be one of the most mismanaged efforts in the IPL history.

Of course, as with most games of cricket, the final result is a culmination of a series of events and cannot be attributed to just one aspect. KXIP’s defeat against CSK is no exception.

Let’s get the less obvious one out of the way first up.

Selection calls

R Ashwin, arguably, got his team selection wrong. On a pitch where he and his namesake M Ashwin combined to bowl eight overs for 46 runs, with the skipper taking crucial wickets in his four-over spell of 3/23, KXIP opted to leave out Mujeeb ur Rehman. Later in the day, the three CSK spinners combined to concede just 61 runs in 12 overs, with Harbhajan delivering two wickets in the powerplay.

Now, hindsight is 20/20 and all that, but this Chennai pitch has been consistently spinner-friendly over the years and especially so in 2019. Ashwin, of all people, should have known that, having played all his life at this venue.

And yet, when MS Dhoni decided to bolster his spin-bowling attack, Ashwin chose against it to bring in Andrew Tye. Now Chris Gayle’s return was a no-brainer so the second change had to be a bowler for a bowler, and Ashwin picked the wrong guy to replace in the XI.

Having said that, KXIP still had the game in their hands at the halfway stage. Sensible batting should have been enough to chase down 161 on a pitch that was still nowhere as bad as the first match of the season against Virat Kohli and Co. Dhoni even said after the match that 161 is not the toughest of targets to chase down while indicating that batting was getting easier as the game progressed.

Mismanaged run-chase

And yet, KXIP managed to fall well short.

Dhoni, in his trademark tongue-in-cheek fashion, said after the match if Chris Gayle got going, no target would have been defendable. “The only thing that can save you from Chris Gayle is an off-spinner,” Dhoni said, explaining why Harbhajan was selected and handed the new ball.

And the move, like it had with Ashwin in the past, worked like a treat for Dhoni. Harbhajan, after firing his first few balls in at pace, got one to rip and turn away from Gayle – the third ball of his first over. And the next delivery was even more slowed down, tossed up and away from Gayle’s reach. The self-proclaimed Universe Boss fell right into the traps set by Dhoni and his off-spinner. With the in-form Mayank Agarwal walking back to the pavilion in the same over, KXIP did not look like favourites to win at that point.

But Rahul and Sarfaraz, for a while, had other ideas. The two played sensible cricket to rebuild the innings, not wasting the powerplay despite those early blows. They then, understandably, took their time between overs seven and 10 to rotate strike and keep the scoreboard ticking.

But after the halfway stage, when you thought the big push would come, it was all too brief. In the next four-over period only pacer Scott Kuggeleign was targetted as they played out the spinners.

Overs 3-6: 39 runs off 24 balls.
Overs 7-10: 25 runs off 24 balls.
Overs 11-14: 29 runs off 24 balls. (One of those overs from Kuggeleign went for 16 runs)
Overs 15-17: 15 runs off 18 balls. 

At the end of the 12th over, with Sarfaraz batting on 45 off 34 balls and Rahul on 39 off 29, Punjab needed to shift the gear. The run-rate was 7.58, the required rate was 8.75. A couple of overs later, with the scoreboard reading 100/2 (56 runs needed from 30 balls – still gettable), KXIP took a timeout.

Now, if these breaks in play were to live up to their billing as “strategic,” the duo should have decided for one of them to push forward, take the attack to the opposition. Instead, in the next three overs bowled by Tahir and Harbhajan, they managed to score just 15 runs. Both of them got to their fifties, but the sequence of tapping into the gaps and rotating the strike from both the well-set batsmen was bizarre, to put it mildly. Rahul was dismissed in the 18th over and Sarfaraz in the 20th as Punjab’s chase petered out.

The classic Dhoni choke had been successfully applied on KXIP.

Without an Andre Russell or a MS Dhoni or a Kieron Pollard in their line-up, that 112-run partnership snuffed out KXIP’s chances and they ended up losing a match where they did not play all too badly for the most part.

“From being 7/2, the two [Rahul and Sarfaraz Khan] got us into a good position and we were in with great chance at the 14 over mark,” Ashwin said after the match. “Somehow, I don’t think they hit the switch on [button] and we did not get enough runs from overs 14 to 17. That was the talk during the second timeout as well. We had enough [batting left] in the shed with Miller, Mandeep and Curran to bat. I think that’s one area which didn’t go our way, but I have to credit Rahul and Sarfaraz for getting us close after the start we had.”

Of course, Ashwin was not going to squarely blame the two top-scorers on the night for the defeat. But yet, you could get the sense that he was not looking too far behind since the game ended to see why his team had lost. It’s not often that a century partnership turns out to be the reason for a team to lose the game, but on Saturday, KXIP played right into Dhoni’s hands.