Sunrisers Hyderabad lost Ashish Nehra at the worst possible time, at the brink of the knockouts. Nehra is more than just a bowler nowadays; he is the bowling captain, much like Zaheer Khan used to be for India. In his absence, and the absence of high-quality spinners, the onus was now on three men facing their own challenges. Bhuvneshwar Kumar was still regaining form, batsmen had begun to get used to Mustafizur Rahman's mystery, and Barinder Sran was a greenhorn, somebody Rajasthan Royals would have eased in this season had their team not been banned.
All three needed to come good on a knockout night when Sunrisers' batsmen put on 162, which in this tournament has been sub-par. While Moises Henriques and Ben Cutting did pick up wickets, the aforementioned trio didn't let Sunrisers miss Nehra. The leader in this crisis has been Bhuvneshwar. A year and a half ago he was trundling in and bowling at 110kph in the Sydney Test. He had been bowled into the ground in the five Tests in England. He had lost all strength, but has regained fitness now. He has built pace, he is swinging the ball, but perhaps most importantly he is shepherding Sran.
"The guys have stepped up [in Nehra's absence], and Barinder Sran has been bowling very well," the Sunrisers captain David Warner said after they defended 162 comfortably. "He is still learning, he is still a bit green, but he is always willing to learn. I think the big credit goes to Bhuvnesh because he has been helping him a lot. He has been talking to him day in and day out about what plans to have for different players."
It's not that easy to keep talking to Mustafizur. Warner even laughed off his drop at third man, which let off Suryakumar Yadav off the bowling of Sran. "You can't always catch Fizz." But while language might be an issue, Mustafizur has a beautiful cricketing brain. As the batsmen have wisened up to his cutters, he has begun to rely more on his yorkers. And these on the night were pinpoint, as Manish Pandey, a big-match player and a proven match-winner in the IPL, kept trying to find a way around them.
When Mustafizur came back for the 17th over, with the asking rate still an achievable two a ball, especially considering Pandey's presence and the small boundaries, he bowled five yorkers in one over. All of them followed the backing-away batsmen. That is a line you might want to leave alone with other bowlers but with his big cutters in the back of your mind you are always wary of the ones that pitch outside leg and start moving viciously towards you.
Bhuvneshwar continued the good work with another over of yorkers. One of them got Pandey's wicket. This double whammy of yorkers was a reminder of the two Kumars, Bhuvneshwar and Praveen, bowling yorker after yorker against the same opposition in a rain-shortened game last year. And they managed to do it on a pitch made for taller bowlers, who could bang the ball in and cash in on the slowness and inconsistent bounce.
"You look at Jason Holder and Morne Morkel," Warner said. "The length they bowled was very hard to hit. You know, tall bounce, hitting the wicket, sort of skidding on bail high. Very hard to get going and trying to hit and have release shots."
Sran won't mind conceding that he has been benefiting from the presence of the other two, and the pressure they create. This night wasn't his night although he took the first wicket and ought to have had two but for Mustafizur's drop.
The challenges are only going to get bigger. If Sunrisers are to go all the way to win the title, they will have to get the better of two heavy artilleries in Gujarat Lions and Royal Challengers Bangalore. They will need more of their skills and accuracy because they have neither the big tall quick bowlers nor the ace spinners. Bhuvneshwar will plot with Sran some more. On his own Mustafizur will need to keep staying one step ahead of the opposition. It will be some viewing if the three can team up to keep the Lions and Royal Challengers batsmen down.