AB de Villiers v Lasith Malinga. One retired international cricketer, another trying to prove the fire's still burning. One hitting sixes for fun, another a shadow of the legend who sent down toe-crushers for fun. One playing without the pressure of proving a point, another down on pace, relying on cutters and dipping full tosses that no longer dip like they once did.
Six out of Malinga's 24 legal deliveries on Thursday were bowled in excess of 130 clicks, but not exceeding 136.8kph. The rest - all under 120 - were delivered with little zip or deviation off the pitch. De Villiers doesn't move until the bowler has released the ball. On Thursday, he gave Malinga a candid view of all the three stumps. This was an open challenge to send down a yorker if he wished to, yet Malinga could only see the ball disappear.
The Malinga of the year 2011 would have sent inswinging yorkers to the base of middle. Here, he can only helplessly watch de Villiers' disdainful flick pepper the solar panels on the roof. Backing away to the off side to set himself for the lap, scoop or flick is de Villiers' base. Bowl length, and he clubs you over deep midwicket. Bowl full on the stumps, and he brings his bat down to scoop. Bowl full outside off, and he scythes you over cover. Go yorker-length on fifth stump, and he carves you behind point. De Villiers doesn't have a hitting arc; he'll hit you anywhere. It's that simple, the essence of his batting philosophy.
De Villiers v Malinga is a no-contest in T20s. Not even when Malinga was a feared yorker-on-demand expert. Before Thursday, de Villiers had shellacked Malinga's 61 deliveries for 100 runs in the format; the most successful IPL bowler had dismissed him only once. There's an air of predictability to it all. Malinga knows what he wants to bowl; de Villiers knows what's coming. Yet, Mumbai Indians fans believe they're still in it. Why?
It's because of Malinga's once-upon-a-time understudy who has now evolved into a blockbuster lead actor. Jasprit Bumrah wasn't supposed to be playing. All indications were he was to be rested; wrapped in cotton wool because he's India's most valuable commodity at the moment with the World Cup months away. At training, Virat Kohli, the opposition captain, kept checking on him, speaking to him, joking with him. Just before the game, Malinga went full-tilt, Bumrah watched. How the roles were reversed! A man who couldn't utter much more than "Thank you, sir" to his franchise's bona fide legend was now emphatically saying, "Well bowled, Mali."
The pair is to hunt in a pack. And while they're at it, Mumbai know de Villiers has the elegance of Kohli to rely on at the other end. His shots aren't brutal - like those straight out of the Chris Gayle school - but the effect is still the same. He never scores ugly runs. Not definitely in Bengaluru, not even when the Chinnaswamy pitches are tired. Where de Villiers moves around, Kohli's destruction isn't based on pre-meditation and getting bowlers to second-guess. It's pure magic, pure hand-eye coordination, strong wrists and the steely belief that he can hit any ball in any direction playing orthodox shots. That's enough pressure for a bowler to contend with.
And so, invariably when two batsmen are on song, the way Kohli and de Villiers were on Thursday, Bumrah is given an unenviable task. In such situations, the batsman wins most times. He's on so much of a roll that it can be hard for the opposition captain to set fields. Coming into the game, Kohli had picked Bumrah for 112 runs off 72 balls, a strike rate of 155. In 10 innings, he had been dismissed by Bumrah only twice. The third time was truly game-changing.
"World ke best batsman ka dande udaana baaki hai, aa raha hoon Cheeku bhaiyya," (I'm yet to break the stumps of the world's best batsman. I'm coming), announces Jasprit Bumrah in an IPL commercial. There wasn't just one 'dande udaana' (breaking the stumps) moment, but many. It didn't come through a toe-crusher, but a mean bouncer. For a batsman who picks lengths very quickly, Kohli was surprised by the zip of the short ball and mistimed a pull to midwicket, with Royal Challengers needing 72 off 38 balls. This was a comeback of sorts for Bumrah, who had been taken for three boundaries by Kohli in his previous over.
The end result may have been different had Colin de Grandhomme held his cool, but with Royal Challengers needing 22 of 12, Bumrah did what Bumrah does, getting every variation right, his precision freakishly to the point.
An off-colour de Grandhomme looked to let de Villiers do the hitting, except Bumrah's aim was inch-perfect: yorker, bouncer, yorker. Even de Villiers could only manage 1 off 3 with one leg bye, and it left Royal Challengers needing 17 off the final over. This was as classic a contest as it could get: a fast-evolving legend keeping in his cross hairs a bona fide legend. A match won when it should've gone the other way, two points stolen from right under the nose of the master. IPL 2019 woke up truly, and how.