What was Dhoni thinking?
This season hasn't been a great one for player-umpire relations. "'We are playing IPL, not club cricket," Virat Kohli fumed after the last-ball no-ball that wasn't called in Royal Challengers Bangalore's chase against Mumbai Indians. "That's just a ridiculous call off the last ball. The umpires should have their eyes open, it was a no-ball by an inch."
In today's game, a dramatic final over from Ben Stokes also included a high full-toss to Mitchell Santner when Super Kings needed eight off three balls. Umpire Ulhas Gandhe signalled no-ball at the bowler's end, only for his square-leg colleague Bruce Oxenford to overrule him.
In the pandemonium that followed, a possibly unprecedented act (at this level, at least, notwithstanding questions over whether the IPL is or isn't club cricket by definition) took place. MS Dhoni, who had been dismissed off the previous ball, stormed onto the field to remonstrate with the umpires.
Dhoni is surely in line for official sanctions, but for what offence? The IPL's code of conduct doesn't seem to have foreseen acts of dissent from players entering the field from outside, and only concerns itself with dissent from batsmen given out and from the fielding team.
Article 2.1.5 includes: (a) excessive, obvious disappointment with an Umpire's decision; (b) an obvious delay in resuming play or leaving the wicket; (c) shaking the head; (d) pointing or looking at the edge of his bat when given out lbw; (e) pointing to the pad or rubbing the shoulder when caught behind; (f) snatching the cap from the Umpire; (g) requesting a referral to the TV Umpire (other than in the context of a legitimate request for a referral that may be permitted in such match); and (h) arguing or entering into a prolonged discussion with the Umpire about his decision. It shall not be a defence to any charge brought under this Article to show that the Umpire might have, or in fact did, get any decision wrong.
2.1.6 Excessive appealing during a Match.
NOTE: For the purposes of Article 2.1.6, 'excessive' shall include: (a) repeated appealing of the same decision/appeal; (b) repeated appealing of different decisions/appeals when the bowler/fielder knows the batter is not out with the intention of placing the Umpire under pressure; or (c) celebrating a dismissal before the decision has been given. It is not intended to prevent loud or enthusiastic appealing. 2.1.7 Using language, actions or gestures which disparage or which could provoke an aggressive reaction from a batsman upon his dismissal during a Match.
Before this match, Rajasthan Royals had the worst batting-first Powerplay run rate of all teams this season: 5.25. They had only batted first twice before this, but on both occasions their caution in the Powerplay may have cost them big.
They were 35 for 1 after the first six overs in their away game against Sunrisers Hyderabad; they eventually posted 198 for 2, but went on to lose that game with an over to spare. Then, at home to Kolkata Knight Riders, they made 28 for 1 in their Powerplay; their opponents cruised to 65 for no loss in theirs, on their way to a punishing win.
Royals perhaps realised they needed to push harder early on when Chennai Super Kings sent them in, and both Jos Buttler and Ajinkya Rahane showed a marked urgency against the fast bowlers, often dancing down the pitch to try and upset their lengths.
Buttler was more successful using this tactic, and he also benefited when the bowler overcompensated by dropping short. Deepak Chahar, who had been a major factor in Super Kings' successes with a Powerplay economy rate of 5.61, conceded 20 in his first two overs.
Shardul Thakur replaced Chahar, and Buttler hit him for successive fours off his first three deliveries. But then, having made 23 off nine balls, he fell attempting an ambitious back-foot slap down the ground.
Buttler's approach is theoretically the ideal one in T20, given the ideal line-up with significant hitting depth - West Indies in the 2016 World T20, for instance.
But in the Royals line-up this season, with a middle and lower order composed of batsmen struggling for form or batting away from their preferred slots, or both, it's less clear what the ideal approach is - it's the dilemma of the high-impact superstar in a misfiring line-up.
Buttler made a cautious 34-ball 37 in his previous innings, against Knight Riders, and Royals ended up with 139 for 3. He batted with a lot more freedom today, was dismissed much earlier as a result of it, and Royals' middle order took them to 133 for 7 by the start of the last over. They could have ended up with 139 again, but Shreyas Gopal's final-over assault on Thakur dragged them past 150.
Sixes trump athleticism
It was a close-run thing, but Super Kings' eventual triumph came from the one ingredient that wins more T20 games than any other: sixes. On one of the bigger grounds in the IPL, they cleared the ropes eight times, including twice in the last over - a falling straight pick-up flick from Ravindra Jadeja, and a clean last-ball strike back over the bowler's head from Mitchell Santner. Before that, the six-hitting from Ambati Rayudu and MS Dhoni - they hit three each - in a fifth-wicket partnership of 95 kept Super Kings within reach of their target even when they needed 10.20 per over at the halfway mark of their chase.
Royals, in contrast, only hit two sixes in their entire innings.
That lack of hitting was their undoing in a match that they otherwise scrapped extremely hard to stay in, particularly with their fielding. A direct hit from Jofra Archer sent Suresh Raina back early, Kedar Jadhav's innings was cut short by an astounding flying catch from Ben Stokes, and a running catch at square leg from Shreyas Gopal broke the Dhoni-Rayudu partnership. All these efforts helped Royals come incredibly close to defending a below-par total, but a couple more big hits when they batted would have made a much bigger difference.