In a format given to the amount of uncertainty that T20 is, stringing together five wins in a row is commendable. And to stop a team that is on such a roll, especially on their home turf, takes a special effort. But that’s exactly what Rising Pune Supergiant did when they beat the Mumbai Indians on Monday, in the process getting on a bit of a roll them self — they have now won three in a row, and sit fourth on the points table.
The opening partnerships for RPS this year have been 35, 1, 24, 0, 63, 15, and 76. Both times they crossed 50, it has been after Rahul Tripathi was trusted to open with Ajinkya Rahane. On Monday too, the pair put up a solid start, which was essential on a wicket where it was not easy to score on as soon as you walked in. Their partnership gave the rest of the batsmen some breathing room when their turn came.
Tripathi and Rahane scored at around eight runs per over in the powerplay, and in fact in the rest of the innings, which is not high by IPL standards. Especially at a venue like Wankhede, where dew sets in later in the evening, making it necessary to have a big score to defend batting first, it seemed they were at least 10 runs short. But the wicket was drier than usual, as was the weather, which meant no dew came. The runs that Rahane and Tripathi put on proved just enough.
When RPS brought in Washington Sundar in place of leg spinner Rahul Chahar for the game against Sunrisers Hyderabad, it seemed to be a move to counter the opening pair of David Warner and Shikhar Dhawan. Both being left handers, RPS probably wagered that the off spin of Sundar would be more effective against the pair and give them a few quiet overs at the start. 17-year-old Sundar exceeded expectations though, giving away just 19 runs off his 18 balls, and proving a good option to start the innings.
That earned him another game, and despite one over where he went for 13, Sundar provided control yet again, giving away just 26 runs off his four overs. His strategy of not giving the batsmen room paid off, when he castled Parthiv Patel with his last ball.
Crucially, he bowled three overs in the powerplay, plugging what has been a gaping hole for RPS. They have traditionally gone with pace from both ends in the first six overs, using spin only as a last resort, and it has earned them scores of 61, 56, 62, 61, and 42 up till now. Sundar bowling in the powerplay meant that Smith had more options at the death. For the last two overs, Shardul Thakur, Ben Stokes, Jaydev Unadkat, Dan Christian and Imran Tahir all had overs in hand. Sundar has been the unlikely ballast, giving balance to the RPS bowling side.
Sundar’s spell also allowed Smith to hold back Tahir until the 10th over, when Rohit Sharma walked in. Tahir had taken three wickets against MI in their last meeting, including R0hit’s. So Smith waited till the second wicket fell, and only then used his premier spinner. While Tahir did not dislodge Rohit, he did account for the other dangerman Kieron Pollard, giving Pune a sniff. Overall, it was a good day for the RPS leadership, with team selections and on-field decisions proving astute.
With the bat, Stokes has had an underwhelming IPL so far, but he is making it up with the ball. That is the beauty of being an all-rounder; in high pressure franchise cricket — where overseas players are expected to contribute — having two departments you are equally good at is a safety net. Stokes was picked up with an eye on his death bowling skills; he is proficient at the yorker, slower ball, and fast and slow bouncer.
Those skills were on full display on Monday night. First, in the powerplay, he delivered a wicket maiden, rarer than a sighting of Haley’s comet. He dismissed fellow overseas player Jos Buttler and almost got Nitish Rana as well. He only conceded his first run after picking up his second wicket.
Later, trusted with the all-important penultimate over, he found his lengths perfectly, denying both six-machine Hardik Pandya and half-centurion Rohit a single boundary. Coming wide off the stumps, he angled the ball into the batters, a dangerous proposition considering that his fine leg was inside the circle. But with the delivery that has the least margin for error, Stokes found his mark more often than not. He gave away only seven runs, allowing Unadkat a cushion of 17 runs to defend in the last over. To top it off, he then pulled off a stunner to send back Pandya. Deservingly, he pocketed the Man of the Match award, helping Pune make it two out of two in the Maharashtra Derby this year.