May 22, 2013

Undone by the Ashwin triplets

Super Kings do what they know best, the practised strangle

Funny thing, the Qualifier. It doesn't really belong in this futuristic, dystopian competition. The Eliminator is more like it. Lose and you're dead. Win and you might still be dead. It's cruel, but that's the IPL; deal with it, losers.

The Qualifier, on the other hand, is the kind of event you get at primary schools. Have a go, children, and if you don't win, no need to cry, you can have another go in a minute. It's a semi-final with a safety catch.

The setting for Tuesday's Qualifier, however, was not at all cuddly. The Feroz Shah Kotla is undoubtedly imposing but like a 100-metre-tall golden statue of Ravi Shastri, it's also slightly frightening. The stands on either side of the pavilion appear to be crooked, the interior seems dark and forbidding, and the whole thing looks like the kind of place Darth Vader might rent as a weekend getaway.

It also features a heartbreakingly flat pitch, but before we got to the ritual beating up of the bowlers, there was a new pre-game quiz show for the crowd's entertainment. "Remember the Names of Your Team-mates" could catch on. A contestant called Rohit was doing very well, but got stuck trying to put a name to the face of his second spinner. With time running out, Rohit blurted out, "Ojha!" and high-fived his friend Mahendra.

Then it was on with mindless biffery. Mitchell Johnson has a touch of the vampire about him these days, with his 1920s screen-villain haircut, sunken cheeks, and wide, staring eyes, but Super Kings had dosed themselves up with garlic and he took a bit of a slaying. He went for 10 an over, as did Pragyan Ouch, Bitnaff Patel, and Lasith Pieflinger.

I could barely watch, it was so cruel. By the time I emerged from behind the sofa, the score read 192 for 1 and Mumbai Indians' fielders trudged off the field like survivors from a really gruesome zombie film. It was the same when Super Kings had a go. The opening bowlers were brutalised. No matter what speed, direction, or angle they tried, everything seemed to end up on a length around middle and leg, briefly, before Dwayne Smith cudgelled it.

At 72 for 1 after seven overs, it was Ashwin time. For the benefit of the viewer, Sunil Gavaskar explained that there were three Ashwins: T20 Ashwin, Test Ashwin, and another, mysterious Ashwin. Like an actor, Ashwin could play any of these Ashwins, without ever being the real Ashwin, although we wouldn't really know which Ashwin Ashwin had been portraying until Ashwin had finished bowling.

The Mumbai batsmen found this so confusing that they forgot to score runs. In his desperation, Dinesh Karthik, given out thigh before wicket, shouted, "Bat! Bat!", but that isn't the correct way to summon Batman, and in any case, I don't think Bruce Wayne's alter ego would be interested in intervening to save the batting average of India's fourth-best wicketkeeper. After waiting in vain for the caped crusader to show up, he had to walk.

As the Ashwin triplets and the splendidly moustachioed Jadeja wheeled away, the runs dried up. Super Kings' hands had wrapped round the throat of their opponents' innings with the subtlety of a practised strangler, and Mumbai were beginning to choke like a Death Star catering manager who had messed up the Emperor's birthday buffet.

When Harbhajan was caught at backward square leg, Dwayne Bravo went to the top of the Bad Dancing table with some ungainly hip and elbow combinations. There is no coloured cap for the bad-dancing leader, but there should be an IPL straitjacket, which might at least restrict any dance-related arm movements, thus minimising the horror for the rest of us.

With the game over, Mumbai had a competition to see who could hit the ball the highest. The crowd craned their necks and oohed and aahed as though they were at a fireworks display, and the Super Kings bowlers scrambled to grab as many wickets as they could with the eagerness of starving prisoners on whom it had just started to rain bread rolls.

Andrew Hughes is a writer currently based in England. He tweets here