Mumbai's Indian shows he belongs
The Champions League Twenty20 games begin with a pre-match routine that underlines just how much tournaments like these are made for theatre. The emcee booms out a series of couplets that highlight the real or imagined feats of the teams, after which the players stride out on a red carpet and exchange pleasantries, choreographed to pop music blaring from the PA system. Experienced players who have witnessed the commercial transformation of cricket, and career freelancers like Kieron Pollard, know they are a part of a charade, and go through the motions without over-indulging in the gimmickry.
Today, however, there was one wide-eyed youngster debuting for the Mumbai Indians who was taken in by the lead-up to the game. Sarul Kanwar looked every bit the excited youngster savouring his first feel of the limelight, both nervous and eager as he took in the ambience and shook hands with his opponents.
One could sense the nerves when he took strike, and nearly edged his first ball - a 138 kph outswinger from Dale Steyn. In the next over, Charl Langeveldt beat him for pace with a sharp bouncer. Kanwar went for the pull, but the ball was through him before he played the shot. Another Indian kid without an answer for pace and bounce?
To Kanwar's credit, he shook off his stage fright quickly. The moment Langeveldt bowled it in his half, he produced an audacious pick-up shot that sailed over square leg. Langeveldt tried the short ball again in his next over, but this time Kanwar was ready, and pulled it emphatically in front of square for four. Langeveldt's response was length again, and Kanwar rolled the bottom hand viciously to cart another six over the leg side. Kanwar was belatedly at ease, and seemed to have convinced himself that he belonged.
He went on to produce a bright innings that propelled Mumbai Indians to their first good batting performance of the tournament. The shot that stood out was the inside-out loft with which he welcomed Robin Petersen to the crease. Kanwar fell off the next ball, but his 45 from 21 balls had given the MI middle order the rare luxury of being able to take their time getting in. James Franklin did just that, while Pollard expressed himself in pressure-free circumstances. MI surged to 176 for 5, but rain denied their bowlers a first chance to defend a total in the tournament.
"We had discussions on who was going to play, a couple of days ahead of the match," Pollard said. "We did take into consideration that Sarul hasn't played any game before. This was an important game for us, and he got the opportunity to go out and express himself. It was a surprise to them and it worked in our favour."
Robin Peterson admitted that Kanwar's spirited blitz threw the Cape Cobras off their game-plan. "It is never easy to plan against someone you don't know," Peterson said. "We were expecting someone else to open and all of a sudden they threw in another guy, a talented Indian player, so it was obviously harder to plan. The next time, though, it will be tougher for him, since people will know where he hits the ball but he is definitely a player to watch out for Mumbai Indians."
With their regular top-order batsmen either injured or out of form, MI were probably forced to experiment with Kanwar. They may have chosen to gamble in a game they could afford to lose, and Kanwar cashed in memorably. On a day when the "injured" Suryakumar Yadav took Man-of-the-Match honours in an age-group game, Kanwar's cameo reiterated that Indian talent is capable of delivering results that a fifth overseas recruit might not always produce.
Nitin Sundar is a sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo