When Mumbai Indians opted to bowl first on a favourable chasing ground, Kings XI Punjab were faced with two options in a must-win game: take the safer route of scoring a par total and then depend on their strong bowling attack, or tread the high-risk, high-reward path and bat Mumbai out of the game.
Prior to this match, Mumbai had successfully chased four times in five games at the Wankhede Stadium this season. In addition, they had also overhauled Kings XI's 198 in Mohali inside 16 overs a few games ago. Given the nature of the Wankhede surface as being favourable to even pace and bounce, coupled with the short boundaries and the possibility of dew influencing the game as the night wore on, Kings XI chose the second option.
Was it the right choice? Did they give themselves a fail-safe? By attacking from the outset, Kings XI allowed themselves two routes to victory as opposed to one, if they wanted to open the first door.
How? Teams batting second prefer to time their chases depending on their target. Low-risk options are used when the field spreads, games drift on with the illusion of control and, as happens in the closing stages of T20s, an event - a wicket, a boundary, even a dot - changes the momentum. So, if Kings XI stumbled to a sub-par score, like they did against Kolkata Knight Riders in their previous game, they could also depend on quality defensive bowling in the second half of a chase. But if their high-risk attacking approach came off, then they would not only negate the disadvantage of losing the toss, but also improve their own chances exponentially.
Kings XI promoted Wriddhiman Saha to exploit the fielding restrictions. Martin Guptill didn't even give himself a sighter. He played two attacking strokes in the first three balls, the second of which flew just over first slip's hand. It may have been an entirely different narrative if it was caught; so fine are the margins in T20. "In this match, I was told that I have to play hard in the first six overs," Saha said of Kings XI's tactics. "With Maxwell, he told me we can't let the momentum go."
Only Kings XI's top five were needed to bat. All of them played at least 13 balls each; among them, Axar Patel had the lowest strike rate: 146.15. Kings XI scored 100 runs off the first eight overs and 99 off the final nine. They asked Mumbai to complete the highest successful chase in the history of the tournament to book a spot in the first qualifier.
After their bowling effort, captain Rohit Sharma led a spirited talk in a huddle. In an era of big bats, improved batting repertoire and pyrotechnical hitting, Mumbai weren't out of the game in the face of the mammoth total. England had chased 230 at the Wankhede Stadium in last year's World T20 in similar conditions. Mumbai even had the advantage of another packed crowd.
Mumbai's openers - Lendl Simmons and Parthiv Patel - added 99 runs in 52 balls, which meant Mumbai were never going to be completely out of the hunt thereafter. Even though they came pretty close to losing their way when Nitish Rana holed out to deep midwicket, their substantial hitting depth kept the chase alive. Kieron Pollard and Hardik Pandya even afforded themselves a couple of sighters. That, however, pushed Mumbai's target to 83 off the last 30 balls. "When a side scores 230, more often than not, you don't give yourself a chance," Pollard said after the match.
That's the game gone in previous generations, even previous IPL editions. But it's cricket in 2017: burly men, massive bats and thinking cricketers. Not much is out of their range. Not even 83 off 30 balls.
The next three overs went for 60, with four fours and six sixes; 10 boundaries in 18 balls. Fatigue, possibly the only hindrance to hitting nowadays, was beginning to influence the game, though. On a typically humid May evening in Mumbai, Pollard, having had to scamper twos to retain strike, was tiring out. "Pollard was batting well, but he was tired," Saha said. "Even when we were batting, when they bowled good yorkers, we weren't able to hit, even we were tired."
Just one boundary, a muscular heave over cow corner, came off the final two overs, and Kings XI kept their playoffs chances alive. Mohit Sharma executed five yorkers in the final over, and conceded two runs off those. Mumbai witnessed another slug-fest, another match completely dominated by batsmen, but it was the bowlers that won Kings XI the game.
"We call that a bowler's graveyard," Pollard said. "We stuck to our guns, these are the kind of games you want going into the playoffs. It proves we are humans, you can't win every game. We keep improving; we had a dismal performance against Sunrisers but we bounced back pretty well.
"We're playing against professionals in their own right, it's not every day you're going to turn up and win. No need to panic. In life, there's always someone worse off than you. We've qualified. First step in every tournament is to qualify, we haven't taken our foot off the gas.
"These are the moments you practice for. Once you're in the middle, the pressure is not as hard as actually watching it. For me, it was pretty easy because I was in the middle."