A game or two left in the group stages. This is not a time for the faint-hearted – it is a time for the lion-hearted. The Gujarat Lions were the early pace-setters in this season of Indian Premier League (IPL), and spent a few weeks looking down from above at those in the chasing pack. But Suresh Raina returned to the helm of the Lions after his only game off in nine years of IPL service, to find them not even within the key top four qualifying places.
The Lions’ season has stuttered of late, but hopefully not too late to rectify this error and get them back where they belong. They had two remaining opportunities, and this match in Kanpur versus the Kolkata Knight Riders was the first. Their opponents were facing a similar challenge – they also had a balance sheet of seven wins, five defeats and fourteen points – but they were in third place courtesy of a superior run-rate. In this very tight group, the difference between progression and elimination may yet come down to a decimal point and fraction.
The Lions’ strength has unquestionably been its batting – and the recent collective loss of form of its potent top five of Brendon McCullum, Dwayne Smith, Raina, Dinesh Karthik and Aaron Finch has coincided with their run of poor results. But the Lions have always had a nice assortment of varied and versatile bowlers – all capable of controlling the run-rate and posing problems.
Yet even at this stage of the season, Raina’s side still haven’t decided what their best XI is – and Thursday night they again made a couple of adjustments: Raina naturally returned to duty; Eklavya Dwivedi, making his IPL debut, was preferred to Akshdeep Nath as their athletic outfielder/number eight batsman; and both youth and experience were omitted from the spin bowling department. Neither 20-year-old left-arm ‘chinaman’, Shivil Kaushik, nor 44-year-old leg-spinner, Pravin Tambe have bowled that badly in the tournament – but both have been a liability in the field. A recall for sprightly 35-year-old Shadab Jakati to provide the slow-left-arm option proved to be a master-stroke – though it was an intervention by him in the field that made the big early impact upon the game; while the upshot of a dropped catch ironically led to a man-of-the-match performance.
Raina won the crucial toss, and as he has done for most of the competition, looked to his opening attack of Praveen Kumar and Dhawal Kulkarni to provide a breakthrough. The opportunity arrived in the second over, and involved both bowlers: KKR skipper Gautam Gambhir lofted Kulkarni towards mid-on, and Kumar, who may look older but is only twenty-nine, moved with the leaden-footed mobility of a senior citizen – the ball eluding his tumbling, fumbling outstretched fingers. In doing so, he pulled a side muscle.
Kumar felt fit enough to ball the next over, the third, but aggravated the injury further – and was also aggravated by Dwayne Smith at slip dropping Gambhir off his bowling. Missed at five and seven, we immediately wondered how many runs those misses would cost. The answer was a solitary single. In the following over, the fourth, Jakati pulled-off a stunning piece of fielding. He dived at midwicket, intersecting with his left hand a shot from Robin Uthappa – who’d set off already and firmly called ‘yes’ – and still semi-grounded, Jakati swung round and threw down the stumps at the wicket-keeper’s end with a swift arm. Gambhir was yards short.
Four overs gone, KKR 34-1 – but Kumar injured. Raina had a problem. His solution proved to be a match-winning one – throw the ball to Dwayne Smith. The captain’s idea may have been to give the Bajan a single over and see how he got on – at least that way one of Kumar’s complement of four would be covered. Smith went for only two runs; and took the wicket of Manish Pandey, who opened the face to Smith’s second delivery and steered a regulation slip chance to the awaiting Raina.
Smith had earned another over, although the second was more expensive than the first: it went for three – but added the scalp of Uthappa. Raina had dispensed with himself at slip, but nonetheless the opener was guilty of the same crime as Pandey – directing the ball off the blade with the intent of finding third-man, but instead finding only the grateful gloves of Karthik.
Smith had become the weapon of destruction, but Raina gave him a little shuffle and changed his end. It reaped dividends as he returned to thrifty ways, parting with only a single – and bagged the wicket of Piyush Chawla into the bargain: his medium-pace gathering some momentum off the pitch as it hit the seam and hurried through a wide-open gate.
At the half-way stage, KKR were an unthreatening 55-4. It was 61-5 when Smith completed his spell, adding the wicket of Shakib Al Hasan to his account – caught safely by Dwivedi at deep third-man from an upper-cut. Smith retired to the outfield with career best T20 figures of 4-0-8-3. Remarkable stuff. “Take a bow, Dwayne Smith!” Alan Wilkins applauded. Well said. The rest of the attack backed up Smith well, and did their returning skipper proud – none better than Jakati, whose four overs were right on the spot. KKR just about managed to double their score in the remaining overs, ending on 124-8, but it was woefully insufficient.
The Lions made short work of it, winning with 39 balls to spare – and that will have done wonders for their overall sluggish run-rate – but not without a minor hiccup or two on the way. Most ironically perhaps was the fate of Smith: out first ball of the reply, bottom edging a pull to KKR’s (non) wicket-keeper, Uthappa, which he juggled messily and eventually held.
McCullum, Karthik and Finch all also went untidily – McCullum lbw, playing all-around a straight ball from Sunil Narine; Karthik losing his middle and off stumps to Morne Morkel; and Finch run out in a daft fashion for the second time in three games (both against KKR) – on this occasion colliding with Raina as they both swerved from one side of the wicket to the other, and directly into each another. But Smith apart all of the top six scored well in excess of the unchallenging run-rate; and the Lions were aided by some dreadful bowling, which included the gift of no-less than sixteen runs in wides.
It was an emphatic win – and while the inspiration for victory came from an unlikely source, this will give the Gujarat Lions big confidence going into their final group match on Saturday versus Mumbai Indians – and once again their supporters can look ahead and have a realistic hope for triumph.
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