Punjab's Indian stars come a cropper again
This sluggish, lopsided and almost painful to watch Twenty20 affair was summed up in two overs, the last of Kolkata Knight Riders' innings, which transformed the game, and the sixth of Kings XI Punjab's reply.
Punjab began that fateful final over well, conceding a single and picking a wicket, but Irfan Pathan bled runs off the remaining balls. Later in the night, having just taken Ajit Agarkar - in his come-back over - for four and six in two deliveries to get the asking-rate under control, Yuvraj Singh failed to curb his enthusiasm and slogged one high into the sky. When it finally came down, it landed in the outstretched hands of an athletic Manoj Tiwary, who covered ground and never lost sight of the ball to pull off a cracker. Those two overs summed up Punjab's plight this season and will no doubt return to haunt them if their campaign continues to remain so woefully inept. Their two most experienced Indian players just haven't hit a rhythm with their primary tasks.
A total of 162 for 4 from 19 overs was decent, but it wasn't daunting. Then Tiwary larruped Irfan's last four deliveries for 20 runs and lifted the run-rate by nearly one an over. With the batsmen ready to swing at whatever came their way, spin was not an option for Kumar Sangakkara, but was Irfan the right man for the job? His three overs had cost 21 runs for one wicket, and Shalabh Srivastava, who had 2 for 23 from three overs, was the alternative. As it transpired, Sangakkara's decision proved unsuccessful, but he should have seen what was coming.
Irfan came into this match with a bowling average of 47.66 and an economy rate of 8.66. He had taken three wickets in five games. A vital player for Punjab, given his all-round ability, he had been floundering in his main occupation. Given his descent as a bowler in the last few years, his lack of penetration must have come as no surprise. Irfan was once again the trundler that fans have now grown accustomed to. There was no pace and Tiwary slapped the short ball for a flat six; a full and wide delivery was drilled past cover; an even fuller ball disappeared back over Irfan's head for a maximum; the last one was so predictable that Tiwary was already hanging on the back foot to get four more.
An innings that had begun in rampant fashion with Brett Lee being flayed for 19 runs ended on a similar note. Irfan's body language said it all as he walked off the field. He had again failed to deliver as a bowler. Like Yuvraj with the bat this season, Irfan's failure as a bowler capable of striking with the new ball and at the death has really hurt this team. Unlike in Test cricket, where you can have a poor session, or 50-over cricket, where you can go for a few runs in the Powerplays before staging a comeback, Twenty20 is merciless. A couple of bad overs and the game slides out of reach. Irfan had four bad deliveries and that made a big difference in the ultimate result.
When Agarkar began the sixth over of Punjab's reply, he was holding a cricket ball for the first time on an IPL field this season. His first ball was on the pads but Yuvraj, who had boldly decided to open, missed out. The next two deliveries were vintage Yuvraj, and hinted that he was finally going to roar and that Agarkar, much to the delight of many a sceptic, was proving to be cannon fodder. Those two brute shots from Yuvraj had all but leveled the asking-rate. But yet again, one of Punjab's vital players chose to disappoint. Impetuosity got the better of Yuvraj and he couldn't resist going for another six. The steepler went up into the night and it was that man Tiwary who was in the thick of things again.
The team's top batsman had been dismissed and with that the chase fizzled out. Yuvraj's poor form is directly linked to Punjab's failings. Today he appeared clueless against Shane Bond, beating beaten by pace, and edging outside off a few times. He saw Agarkar come on and thought he had an escape route, but it didn't work out. Given the dead nature of the Mohali pitch, Sangakkara would have expected his batsmen to make a fist of this chase. Instead, Bond began with a one-run first over in which he sent back Ravi Bopara, and then Yuvraj lost it once again. That wicket set in motion one of the ugliest chases in the IPL, with all the batsmen playing well below their best. This was a match that Punjab could have won, and they will look back regretfully at another damning passage of play where they simply refused to go forward. At the fall of the third wicket, Sangakkara was joined by Mahela Jayawardene and the Sri Lankan duo stitched together 34 runs in six overs, allowing the asking rate to go past 15.
Punjab's campaign is yet to take off and the wheels are already coming off rapidly. Given the way their two best Indian players failed, in the capacity they are most expected to deliver, this loss - their fifth in six games - will hurt a lot more than most. Though Sangakkara tried to put on a brave face by speaking of trying to find the best position for players to bat, and that the only way to go was up, the downward spiral will only continue unless Yuvraj and Irfan get their act together.
Jamie Alter is a senior sub-editor at Cricinfo