Steady Yuvraj helps Punjab turn a small corner
Sixty runs were required from thirty balls when Ravi Bopara hit 19 runs off a Praveen Kumar over to swing the game towards Kings XI Punjab. That was the obvious turning point in a game Punjab eventually won but the first sign came the previous over. The target was then 66 off 36 and Punjab would have been entitled to feel a bit of panic as they needed at least a couple of big overs and Anil Kumble, one of the form spinners in this tournament, had the ball. But it was his last over and, aware of this, Yuvraj Singh and Bopara played him out quietly. Kumble, not one to miss a trick, even tossed a couple in the air but Yuvraj refused to bite. It was a sign of his maturity and of the fact that he had ingested the mantra of the Indian national team, as passed down by Sachin Tendulkar.
"When you are under pressure, know that you have more time than you think," is Tendulkar's standing advice to his teammates. Yuvraj didn't forget that today. The last ball of that over, and of Kumble's quota, was the killer. Kumble floated it really high and just outside leg stump, experience tempting youth. Yuvraj simply padded away the temptation. The game turned from then on. "I knew we had five overs left and we could turn it on there," Yuvraj later said. "Bopara was well settled and so I bided my time." Sure enough, the next over Kevin Pietersen turned to Praveen Kumar and Bopara went berserk. Game over.
Punjab's first win of IPL 2009 came in their full game of the tournament - both previous games had been affected by rain. Indeed, the first comment Yuvraj made in the post-match ceremony was, "Thank God, no rain!" Asked what they did differently from the first two, Tom Moody's reply was succinct: "Nothing. This is the first time we had a full game. It's not fair to judge us on the last two games."
Rain has not been Punjab's only problem this year - they've lost Brett Lee, Sreesanth, Shaun Marsh and Jerome Taylor to injury for the entire tournament. And though Bopara is stepping up to replace Marsh, the bowling has been left severely depleted.
Given the constraints, what Punjab need is all hands on deck and that seems to be what they are practising. On the eve of the game, Mahela Jayawardene said the team's chief goal is to settle into a combination as soon as possible. "There's no use thinking about the ones we lost. We just have to do with what we have; they just need to adjust to new conditions. The bowling hasn't been great so far but they are all new faces trying to adapt to the conditions here. It's up to us, the seniors, to guide them properly."
Punjab entered the semi-finals last year and Jayawardene said he felt the biggest learning was that in this format, more than others, individual roles needs to be clearly etched. "We just need to figure out the exact role for various individuals and how collectively they fit into the team and develop combinations. There is not much time out there to think and come back from errors. We have lots of new players now and so we are again going through the process to get the right balance."
If Bopara stepped up with the bat, Yusuf Abdulla put his hand up with the ball with four big wickets - those of Jesse Ryder, Jacques Kallis, Kevin Pietersen, and Ross Taylor. The bowling still looks a bit weak, though; they tried Ranadeb Bose today but he leaked 24 runs in two overs. VRV Singh is yet to get going and only time will tell whether Abdulla's effort was a flash in the pan or the beginning of something special.
So they still depend heavily on their batting to win games - and on Bopara and Yuvraj to play the role of big hitters. They have Irfan Pathan who can swing his bat around a bit and two steady, but vastly experienced, middle order batsmen in Sangakkara and Jayawardene. The path ahead is difficult and it will be a real accomplishment if they make it into semi-finals. But if they can keep their heads about them, as Yuvraj did on Friday, they may just make it easier for themselves.
Karna S is a freelance cricket writer