By the end of the game’s first Powerplay, Rising Pune Supergiant had one foot in the Playoffs. Kings XI had lost half their batting with only 32 runs on the board. A late-order resolve could have provided an escape route. But in a must-win contest for both sides, Punjab wilted under pressure, while Pune revelled in it and finished second in the league standings to earn two shots at earning a spot in the final.
How befitting that Shardul Thakur turned out to be the destroyer-in-chief for Pune against his old franchise. Punjab didn’t consider him good enough even to be among the reserves last season and released him mid-term. Credit to the 25-year-old that he emerged stronger. A tally of 41 wickets for Mumbai in the 2015-16 Ranji Trophy season followed by 27 scalps last term took him to the Indian Test squad. As the Pune team management gave him the liberty to play without fear, Thakur showed he could be pretty effective in the shortest format as well.
As there had been some rain around the city in the last couple of days, the Maharashtra Cricket Association Stadium pitch was expected to have some moisture. It made the surface a little slow and sticky. The ball was not coming on to the bat. Supergiant skipper Steve Smith won a good toss and elected to bowl first. Thakur was bending his back right from the start, at times clocking over 140kph. He dismissed Shaun Marsh with a cross-seamer, inviting the batsman to hit on the up. Marsh took the bait and was taken by Smith, running to his left at mid-off. Rahul Tewatia came in at No. 5 and was done in by another cross-seamer. The extra bounce forced him to play an uppish ‘no shot’ towards short fine leg, where Jaydev Unadkat took a lovely catch diving to his left.
Punjab captain Glenn Maxwell departed three balls later, hitting a leg stump half-volley straight to Ajinkya Rahane at deep square leg. From Pune’s point of view, Thakur’s spell – 3/19 in four overs – had sucked the life out of their rivals.
Now spare thought for Unadkat, who struck first ball to remove Martin Guptill. The Kiwi attempted an extravagant drive to a widish delivery outside off stump, giving a catch to Manoj Tiwary at short cover. Eoin Morgan’s run out was spectacular, as a diving Unadkat disturbed the timbers at the non-striker’s end with a direct hit. Tewatia’s catch came close on its heels. Unadkat was fielding with such intensity that he even apologised to MS Dhoni, when one of his throws to the ‘keeper was a few inches off the mark.
Unadkat should have had Wriddhiman Saha as well early on, but Dhoni dropped a sharp chance. Once the Punjab top half was cleaned up, Dan Christian and Adam Zampa – nervy to begin with – took care of the rest. Axar Patel tried to offer some fight but his dismissal in the 12th over hastened the end. Punjab slumped to 73 all out in 15.5 overs, their lowest-ever total in the IPL.
Pune romp into Playoffs
The victory target for Pune on Sunday was 74. The hosts just needed a decent opening partnership to avoid uncertainties. Rahane and Rahul Tripathi put on 41 runs for the first wicket and their team was through. Rahane needed to spend some time at the crease before the knockouts and a run-a-ball 34 not out should augur well for the opener, whose form has had been a tad iffy of late. Tripathi played with his customary positivity before he went for a pre-meditated sweep against Patel, losing his off stump in the process. Smith and Rahane then ensured things were done and dusted in 12 overs.
P.S. : Pune would be without Ben Stokes in the knockouts as he flies back to fulfil national duties. But thanks to youngsters like Thakur, Unadkat and Tripathi; there would still be enough life in the team without the world’s best allrounder.