A match marred by mediocrity
This was a knockout match, a virtual semi-final. Teams that had finished second and third over the course of a 72-game league stage spanning 47 days clashed to decide which of them would take on the top-ranked side. This was expected to be thrilling, cracking Twenty20 cricket between dominating superstars and everyone's favourite underdogs in front of a packed, historic ground. What we got was an astonishing meltdown by arguably the best T20 bowler in the world, a farce of a fielding effort from Rajasthan Royals and a near-choke of a batting effort from Mumbai Indians.
All this was watched by a half-empty Eden Gardens. A week ago, on the day after the first arrests in the spot-fixing controversy had been made, a near-full house turned up at the Uppal Stadium in Hyderabad for the evening's IPL game. During the past week, cricket has been tested, and continues to be tested, off the field in a way it has seldom been before. All the stress of that scrutiny seemed to have caught up with the game on the field, too, at Eden Gardens. And witnessed by a turnout that spoke volumes with its sparseness, it seemed to just cave in to the pressure.
Lasith Malinga bowled such a huge wide down the leg side it made Steve Harmison's Ashes wide look like a yorker on middle stump. In a premonition of just how poor the night was going to be, incredibly, Malinga slung in another mammoth wide to the fine-leg boundary. He was so shocked he stared at his right hand, the same one that had sent down stump-destroying yorkers on cue through his career. This was a night of shocks all right, off the field, and on it.
One would have thought taking 18 runs off the opposition's most successful bowler would have changed the momentum in favour of Royals. If it had, the Royals players refused to take it with an apologetic display on the field. Before the game, Rahul Dravid, the Royals captain, had said the franchise did not believe in fielding, and bowling, coaches. The Royals owners have never pushed it when it comes to spending money. One wonders if this effort in a high-stakes match would make them rethink their belief.
Royals hardly appeared to be on the field. It appeared as if, along with their comfort zone, they had also left behind their fielding skills at home in Jaipur, where they had spent a few days after the spot-fixing arrests. Routine stops were fluffed. Boundaries were conceded when a single or at best a two was on. Backing-up to throws was patchy. Throws were off-target. Fielders did not run in from the deep quickly enough. For three-fourths of the chase, Royals were not able to build any pressure. And when Mumbai Indians created some late anxiety for themselves, Brad Hodge dropped Ambati Rayudu.
That it went down to the penultimate ball was due to the inability of Mumbai Indians to shake off the impression that, for all their might, they choke under pressure. They had a start of 70 for 0 in nine overs in a chase of 166. And they had to depend on Harbhajan Singh and Rishi Dhawan to finish it. Wide long-hops and half-volleys on the pads were hit straight to fielders. Mumbai Indians captain Rohit Sharma came in at 125 for 2 with an asking-rate of seven-odd and proceeded to calmly defend ball after ball before missing an awkward slog to get bowled.
It was like he had been batting in a parallel universe, ignoring and ignoring a pressing need till he woke up and saw something drastic had to be done, but messed it up in belated haste. Not unlike what was happening outside the ground.
This was a match marred by some exceedingly mediocre play, even as surreal drama played out in the corridors of the game's administration at the same time. After a week of tensions and questions that keep piling up, cricket seemed to tell those who bothered to watch that it was tired. Tired of having to go through what it had, and of what lay in store for it. Tired of still having to put on a show every evening and behave as if nothing had happened. Tired of living in a parallel universe.
Abhishek Purohit is a sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo