Rajasthan Royals 226 for 6 (Samson 85, Tewatia 53, Smith 50, Shami 3-53) beat Kings XI Punjab 223 for 2 (Agarwal 106, Rahul 69) by four wickets
As it unfolded, it felt like a chase that defied logic in every way possible. But by the time the Rajasthan Royals were done mowing down a target of 224 - an IPL record - the scorecard reflected one bit of cold, hard T20 logic: the team that hits more sixes usually wins. Kings XI Punjab hit 11 sixes - seven coming off the bat of Mayank Agarwal, who made a scintillating 106 off 50 balls - and the Royals hit 18.
Sanju Samson hit seven of those sixes while scoring a second successive half-century for the first time in his IPL career. His 42-ball 85 was more reward for the intense training he did during cricket's Covid-19 hiatus, which enabled him to take his natural ball-striking ability and turn it into an instrument of almost scientific precision.
Samson put on 81 for the second wicket with Steven Smith in just 40 balls, putting the Royals well in touch with their asking rate. They then promoted Rahul Tewatia - their only left-hander - to No. 4, and the move was beginning to look like one of the most ill-judged tactical interventions in IPL history when he struggled to hit the ball off the square and crawled to 8 off 19 balls. But the six-hitting ability that he possesses came into view just when the Royals seemed out of it. Tewatia smacked Sheldon Cottrell for five sixes in a match-turning, match-defining 18th over, and an improbable 51 off 18 balls turned into a far more straightforward 21 off 12.
A partnership of two tempos
Sent in to bat - Smith, the Royals captain, expected dew to play an influential role through the second innings, and it did - Kings XI got off to a flier, their openers rushing to 60 in the powerplay. From there, Agarwal and KL Rahul extended their partnership to 183 - the third highest for the first wicket and the eighth highest overall in the IPL.
The two batsmen approached their innings differently. At one end, Agarwal went for his shots at every opportunity, and also looked to create opportunities to play his shots. He moved around his crease - to manufacture room to hit Ankit Rajpoot over mid-off, for instance, or to manufacture length to shovel the quickish legspin of Tewatia over midwicket - and in general went through with his shots with a degree of abandon; some of the sixes he hit weren't off the cleanest connections, but a batsman can gamble on a small ground like Sharjah.
Even so, Agarwal's sparkling form allowed him to achieve a control percentage of 80 - which is pretty high for an innings achieving a strike rate of 212.00. At the other end, Rahul faced 54 balls - four more than Agarwal - and pulled off a control percentage of 85, but only struck at 127.77. Aside from a hat-trick of fours against Jofra Archer in the fourth over, he seemed to almost consciously play second fiddle to Agarwal, giving him the strike whenever possible.
It's a common tactic in partnerships like this, and Rahul has the game to up his tempo dramatically later on - his unbeaten 132 against Royal Challengers Bangalore followed the same template.
Maxwell, Pooran apply the finish
On this day, however, both Rahul and Agarwal seemed to tire as their partnership progressed, and from 172 for no loss at the 15-over mark, Kings XI scored 22 off the next 18 balls - a period in which they lost both openers.
Only 21 balls remained in the innings when Glenn Maxwell walked in, and only 12 when Nicholas Pooran came to the crease. It can be difficult to come in at that sort of time and find the boundary immediately, but both managed it to varying degrees of success. Rajpoot and Tom Curran managed to tie Maxwell down to an extent, but he created a couple of boundaries with his movement around the crease. Pooran, however, got a few balls in his slot and dispatched all of them ruthlessly - he hit three sixes and a four in just eight balls, three of those boundaries coming in an 18-run final over from Jofra Archer.
Smith and Samson keep Royals in the hunt
This would be a record chase if the Royals could pull it off, but the pitch was still just as flat - and the outfield just as small - as it had been during Kings XI's innings. Steven Smith gave them the early momentum they needed with three fours in the first two overs, all the result of a still head and trust in some of the best hands and wrists in the business.
Samson, who arrived after the early departure of Jos Buttler, got stuck in straightaway, swatting the first legal delivery he faced - a short-of-length ball from Cottrell - over long-on for six. He continued in much the same manner, with his set-up at the crease - emphasizing a strong base and the stillest of heads - and the pick-up of his bat designed with six-hitting in mind, first and foremost.
With Smith using his reach and powerful wrists to stunning effect, the Royals motored to 69 for 1 in the powerplay. Thirty-one more runs came off the next 17 balls, before Smith skewed James Neesham's legcutter into the off-side sweeper's hands. A similar line from Neesham had brought Smith three fours in the sixth over, but the bowler came out on top with the extra protection in the deep.
Tewatia, part 1
At that point, the Royals needed 124 off 11 overs. There were sound reasons for them to promote Tewatia: he was the only left-hander in their line-up, he had shown flashes of six-hitting ability in the past - and more than flashes in the team's recent training sessions - and there were two legspinners in the Kings XI attack to target.
That was the theory. But Kings XI brought on their sixth bowler - the offspinner Glenn Maxwell - as soon as Tewatia came in, and when they did bowl a legspinner at him, it was the confounding figure of Ravi Bishnoi, who slants the ball across left-handers from wide of the crease, and then predominantly bowls wrong'uns turning away from their hitting arc.
Tewatia struggled to come to terms with either of them, or the pace changes of Neesham. His first 19 balls brought him eight runs. And in all that time, Samson only faced 15 balls. When Bishnoi ran up for the fifth ball of the 15th over, the Royals needed 90 off 32 balls.
Tewatia, part 2
Smith later revealed Samson told Tewatia to jump out of his crease to Bishnoi, slog, and see what happened. He did that and miscued a six down the ground. Then Samson pounced on a crucial 16th over, hitting Maxwell for three effortless sixes to keep the Royals just about in touch with their required rate.
A slower bouncer from Shami ended Samson's innings in the 17th over, but a brace of fours from Robin Uthappa ensured the Royals were still in it, somewhere within the outer limits of probability.
Then, finally, Tewatia got to face someone he's ideally set up to hit: a left-arm quick angling the ball into his hitting arc. As if to show just how specialised T20 hitting can be, Tewatia turned into the Tewatia the Royals had seen in the nets. Cottrell kept giving him the angle he needed, from left-arm over, and the length - and even the line - didn't seem to matter to Tewatia. When Cottrell went short, he stepped inside the line and pulled him for six. Back of a length, muscled over long-on. Full, over long-off. Length, wide of off, slogged over midwicket.
Archer finishes it off
That still left the Royals needing 21 off 12. It became 21 off 11 when Uthappa holed out to long-off. But they had more six-hitting left in the tank. Archer had smashed an unbeaten 27 off eight balls against the Super Kings, and he picked up from where he left off, hitting the first two balls he faced, from Shami, for sixes over midwicket and down the ground.
All that was left was for Tewatia to complete his redemptive arc with a flat six over point to move past 50, and for a small measure of late drama - Tewatia and Riyan Parag falling in the space of three balls to leave the Royals needing two off four balls. Tom Curran's experience sealed the deal off the legspin of M Ashwin, an assured loft over extra-cover ending a quite remarkable contest with three balls to spare.