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Delhi Capitals and the madness of youth

Delhi Capitals looked like they had done it again. Thrown it away, that is. They needed 12 from 12 with Rishabh Pant and Sherfane Rutherford at the crease. Ten balls on, it was two in two, and Trent Boult had just walked out to join Keemo Paul.

Paul usually doesn't say much, but looked like the one charting out the plans for the last two balls. He is just 21, but had done it before, taken on Khaleel Ahmed in the last over in search for a win. Back in 2016, he had taken West Indies Under-19s to the World Cup title, top-edging an attempted pull. It's a pull again, and he nails it this time, finishing the job and putting Capitals just one step away from a maiden IPL final.

***

At the post-match press conference, Prithvi Shaw saw the comic side of yet another close match.

"I think we have an affinity for making games interesting every time," he said. "Things seem to go well and suddenly two-three wickets fall. That is the fun in T20s. As long as the situation is not interesting, you don't have fun. You don't feel that pressure. I suppose you guys might have felt the pressure as well - who will win? Who will come for the press conference? The same thing happens in the dugout."

Shaw is one of 12 players who are under 25 years of age in the Capitals' squad. If we make that under 26, then he's one of 14 players in that bracket, in a squad of 24. It is no secret now that youth investment is the hill that the Capitals have chosen to die on. It was a decision born when they were still the Daredevils a few years ago. Rarely has a team been able to transform on the fly over 11 years of the IPL. Sunrisers Hyderabad, of course, were born from the ashes of Deccan Chargers and have now carved their identity despite joining the league late. But it's not something any other team has managed. It's something that Delhi, especially, had never pulled off, every roster reshuffle over the years had seemed like an exercise in finding new ways to lose.

To reiterate, they took the brave call to persist with youngsters, and at long last have come to the possibly their best result ever. And they've got it overwhelmingly right.

When Shaw reached his fifty on Wednesday, only his second of the season, he held up the crest on his shirt, pointed two fingers at the dugout, and traced a line across - dedicated to all of you.

"I've prepared quite a lot because I wasn't scoring that well in the Powerplay and the team wasn't really happy," he said. "But they never gave up on me. They believed in me and I believed in myself. Thanks to all the support staff, Sourav [Ganguly] sir, Ricky [Ponting] sir, Pravin [Amre] sir, [Mohammad] Kaif sir and the players as well. They're the ones who have given me a lot of positive vibes, and believing in myself was the biggest thing."

Coming into the Eliminator, Shaw had only one 40-plus score in ten innings in IPL 2019. On Wednesday, Capitals dropped Colin Ingram and brought in Colin Munro - an opener coming in for a middle-order batsman. So, the option was there to bump Munro up the order and drop Shaw altogether. But they persisted with him, and on a surface where top international batsmen like Kane Williamson and Shikhar Dhawan didn't quite get going, Shaw played all the shots that have made people giddy in his short stint at top-level cricket.

Before he had hit his first boundary, he looked to pull twice and was beaten. It wasn't that kind of pitch - and then he decided it was. Two pulled boundaries, a cut. A punch on the rise to beat mid-off, and a lofted extra-cover drive against Rashid Khan. Just the kind of shots you don't play on a sticky wicket if you're a seasoned professional.

"I just thought that if I get any loose ball then I'll wait for it and give it a smash. That's it."

Give it a smash, that's it.

***

When Williamson took a gamble bringing on Basil Thampi, he said the idea was to take the cutters away from Pant, as opposed to those of Khaleel that come into the left-hander. And Pant, to borrow his team-mate's words, gave it a smash. That's it: 4, 6, 4, 6. Game-changer. It's that thing experts have long said Pant can do.

Pant's 49 off 21 balls was just as breathtaking and ludicrous as Shaw's 56. In all, he hit five sixes, two of which came against Mohammad Nabi, another bowler who was brought on to counter Pant by taking the ball away. He effectively sealed the win when he hit Bhuvneshwar Kumar over long-off - his first off-side six of the season. Paul then held his nerve to finish the job.

Just as often as he is hailed for turning the game on a dime, Pant gets the stick for not being predisposed to see the team through on several occasions. But Capitals just back him to play his shots and come good.

"[..] I'm not going to curb the way he plays, I'm not going to tell him to slow down because if he plays his best he will win games for us. I want him to go out with pure freedom and with no other thought other than hitting the ball for a six."

That's what Ricky Ponting told the press earlier this season, which in hindsight was a preamble to all that happened Wednesday night.

There is enough in Capitals' young roster to produce special moments, and it seems they now have the license to exhibit some of their madness. There were players taking charge of situations at every point. Shaw went after the bowling, Paul looked to steal that single with Amit Mishra at the other end, before owning the situation to seal a win. And Pant, long before he came out to bludgeon Sunrisers, had plastered himself all over the Deepak Hooda run-out situation, screaming, arguing, asserting - convincing his captain not to withdraw the appeal. Hooda wouldn't even have had strike next ball, but letting it go would have been an extra run in an elimination match.

It's the kind of bottle that's been on display in the world of football over the last week, a world where successful investments in long-term projects and youth have all come shining to the fore through various underdogs in the Champions League. It is a vastly different world from the two-month fling that is the IPL, but there is a parallel to draw.

Before Liverpool overturned their 0-3 score to beat Barcelona in the second leg of the semifinal, manager Jurgen Klopp had said the plan was to either surprise them or "fail in the most beautiful way". If the second qualifier against Chennai Super Kings is anything like the lop-sided fixture Klopp's team were entering, then it appears Capitals already have their team talk sorted.