Rajasthan thrash Punjab to go second
Two changes, one of them a tactical masterstroke, made their impact in the very first over of each innings to hand Rajasthan Royals an imposing 78-run win against Kings XI Punjab, and propel them - in an intensely fluid tournament - to second place on the points table. The match was effectively decided in three overs: the first of Rajasthan's innings, when Naman Ojha hammered 16 off Ramesh Powar; the penultimate, when Sreesanth went for 23, and the first over of Punjab's innings when Amit Singh, playing his first Twenty20 game, took two wickets, including one off the first ball.
Rajasthan have stayed in this tournament through their bowling but managed today to rectify the blips in their erratic top order to build on a solid opening stand between Ojha - promoted for this game - and Graeme Smith. If Rajasthan got their tactics right, Punjab certainly did not, undermining their decision to field in seaming conditions by opening with a spinner. Powar was punished for 16 in the first over as Ojha, using his feet to counter the flight, smashed two sixes over long-on. Seven balls into the game and Rajasthan had equalled their highest opening partnership of 20 in this year's tournament - the first wicket had reached double figures just once in seven matches .
Though Yuvraj Singh realised his miscalculation and immediately reverted to pace the momentum had been seized. Smith and Ojha timed their innings superbly, latching on to any available opportunity and presumably heightening the sense of regret in the opposing captain for gifting them the initiative.
Ojha adapted to the conditions perfectly after the fielding restrictions were lifted. He combined his naturally aggressive flow with some deft touches, late-cutting Piyush Chawla for a boundary and following that up with an even more delicate dab wide of third man off Abdulla to put on display his varied repertoire of strokes.
Smith's innings marked a contrast to his guarded approach against Delhi Daredevils, when, struggling for form, he took a backseat to Yusuf Pathan's monstrous onslaught that won them the game. Here, he led the charge, smashing Powar for a six in the eleventh over, and finding the gaps in the leg-side consistently, favouring the short-fine and the midwicket region, and using the slog-sweep and the clip off the pads to good effect. The pair used their feet against spinners - Ojha charging down the pitch, and Smith favouring the sweep - to dent the tournament's main bowling weapon, and adding 135, the best opening stand this IPL.
Punjab sensed a comeback with three quick wickets, including the two openers and Yusuf Pathan, who entertained a sizable crowd with 7-ball cameo, and appeared within reach of restricting Rajasthan to around 180. But Ravindra Jadeja ensured there was no shift in momentum, with a blistering 33. Much of that came off the penultimate over from Sreesanth, returning from a three-month injury layoff - he overstepped twice, was dispatched for a six and a four over the leg-side field, and was left infuriated when a thick edge beat the keeper to the boundary to take Rajasthan past 200.
Yuvraj's opening gambit failed with the bowling and his batsmen failed to compensate. Amit, an unknown commodity on the international circuit from Gujarat, had a dream start with Sunny Sohal's wicket off his first ball. Karan Goel, given another go after a poor run of scores, belied the faith by holing out at deep square-leg while attempting an ugly swipe off the final ball.
Strategy, or the lack of it, failed Punjab yet again as Yuvraj kept himself off the top order, coming in at No 6 - by which time the match had been decided. Three more wickets in four overs sealed their fate as Kumar Sangakkara, Simon Katich and Mahela Jayawardene each fell while attempting to salvage an improbable chase. Eventually it was left to their captain to lessen the damage to his team's net run-rate and limit the humiliation.
Punjab's problems at the top of the order have resurfaced, while Rajasthan appear to have fixed theirs. More worrying, though, is Punjab's bowling as the failure of Abdulla and their spinners let them down at a crucial phase in the tournament.
Siddhartha Talya is an editorial assistant at Cricinfo