Sachin Tendulkar the batsman nearly made up for Sachin Tendulkar the captain, but a charged-up Lions side completed a feel-good underdog win in a tense finish to kick off the Champions League T20. Their young opener, Jonathan Vandiar, and the experienced Neil McKenzie gave the star-studded but sloppy Mumbai Indians a rough welcome to the Highveld before Lions' enthusiastic bowlers and fielders did enough to keep the chase in check.
Tendulkar's 69 off 42, which was as good an innings as the fifties from Vandiar and McKenzie, left JP Duminy and Kieron Pollard 56 to get off 33. Shane Burger, gentle right-arm medium-pacer on the face of it, followed up the big wicket of Tendulkar with a pinpoint yorker to remove Pollard. What made that second wicket even more special was that it came at the end of an over in which Pollard smashed Burger all around his home ground. Thirty-one off the remaining three overs proved too much for Duminy.
The second-last ball of the match summed up a night on which Mumbai got almost every strategy wrong. With two sixes required to force a tie, Ryan McLaren played one along the ground. Clearly Mumbai didn't have much of a role for him as batsman, and they used him to bowl only the first over of the match that went for four runs and four leg-byes. The part-timers who were used instead went for 49 in four overs.
That shouldn't take away from the joy of the underdogs. At the heart of the Champions League is the charm of a low-key team giving an ensemble of millionaire superstars, bought in an auction, a hard time. The League's second season couldn't have asked for a better opener on that account.
In front of a decent home crowd, the Lions came so ready they even erred on the side of over-enthusiasm; Mumbai were slow in the field, bizarre in the tactics, and inexplicably subdued, starting with McLaren and left-arm spinner Ali Murtaza, choosing not to attack a nervous-looking home side with Zaheer Khan and Lasith Malinga.
As it turned out, Vandiar got over the nervous start, during which he ended up at the same end as his captain Alviro Petersen, but he beat his mate to the crease by a split frame to give himself a chance to make this his night. By the end of the innings, Mumbai would have wished Murtaza, the bowler who completed the run-out, had been slightly quicker in taking the bails off.
Vandiar kept swinging wildly during the Powerplay, edging and slogging his way to 18 off 23, but he transformed the effort when the field spread, scoring 53 off his last 26, to reach his highest Twenty20 score. The seasoned McKenzie, though, didn't need any crazy acceleration, starting his unbeaten 56 off 30 balls with a beautiful late-cut and finishing with brutal short-arm jabs.
Richard Cameron, playing one shot too many, followed Petersen soon and Lions seemed to have lost their way at 39 for 2 at the end of the Powerplay. The seventh over proved to be a turning point of sorts. Harbhajan Singh slipped while trying to bowl his first delivery, and then slipped his second attempt in short and wide. That boundary perhaps told Vandiar he didn't need to go across the line every time.
In the next few overs, Vandiar danced down the pitch to Zaheer, and lofted Duminy over cow corner for six. He then targeted the gentle pace of R Sathish and Pollard. The unsure swings had now turned into assured shots into vacant areas. If the six to bring up his fifty, over long-off, was a treat to watch, the one over midwicket, off Malinga, was plain audacious.
McKenzie was not indulging in anything audacious. He played smart, percentage cricket, letting Vandiar take charge. That didn't mean he was slow. By the time Vandiar got out in the 17th over, he had helped himself to 28 off 18. Tendulkar's inexplicable non-usage of McLaren continued, and McKenzie took full toll of Murtaza's wayward 18th over. Mumbai's fielders helped too, allowing two overthrows in the last three overs to let McKenzie retain strike. Thirty-nine came off those three overs.
Asoka de Silva tried to be a villain in the fairytale when he denied fast bowler Ethan O'Reilly's grandchildren the story of how grandpa got the greatest batsman of the day plumb lbw first ball. Tendulkar, on 6 at that point, went on to put on an exhibition, but his side was frustrated by a bubbly fielding effort. The excitement did get to Lions a bit as they conceded a few overthrows and dropped Tendulkar when on 34.
Tendulkar was taking Mumbai home smoothly when bowled by Burger. Pollard was taking Mumbai home brutally when bowled by Burger. That was the final touch of the individual that Lions needed on a night of their collective brilliance.