Kings XI Punjab's first week of the season could hardly have been worse: they lost all three of their matches, the injury list remained lengthy and their big guns in the middle order were not firing. After mustering only 134 against Chennai Super Kings, a team they had never beaten, and watching them stroll to 96 for 1 in the 13th over, even their perennially optimistic co-owner, Preity Zinta, wouldn't have expected her team to pick up their first points of the season at the MA Chidambaram Stadium.
But they did, largely due to a little-known South African fast bowler Juan Theron, a last-minute signing who was making his IPL debut. Theron has made his name in South African domestic cricket as a last-over specialist. His ice-in-the-veins final overs won his franchise, the Warriors, at least two games in the recent Pro20 tournament and were instrumental in them taking the title and, most likely, a place in the lucrative Champions League Twenty20.
It is his ability to stay cool under pressure that has earned him a spot in South Africa's squad to the ICC World Twenty20, and a national contract. That ability was on display against Chennai as well, that too in front of a hostile crowd, probably the largest he has played in front of.
The match had begun badly for him, with a first-ball duck, and his first delivery in the IPL was pulled to midwicket for four by Parthiv Patel. It was with his fielding that he made his first impact: smartly kicking the ball onto the stumps at the keeper's end after his follow-through to catch Suresh Raina short, and break his snappy 31-run stand with Parthiv that was launching Chennai to a share of the top spot in the standings.
Four deliveries later, he won an iffy lbw decision from umpire Daryl Harper to send back M Vijay and provide a shaft of hope for his side. A string of tight overs from Punjab's spinners brightened their chances further, and after his three-run penultimate over, in which he took out Manpreet Gony, Chennai was the gloomier side.
A scrappy final over from Irfan Pathan was enough to push the game into a Super Over, and it was a measure of the confidence Theron had inspired in the Punjab think-tank that he was picked to send down the decisive deliveries despite being a debutant.
Lined up against him were three fearsome hitters - Matthew Hayden, Albie Morkel and Raina. He passed that test too to cap a magnificent first game. Hayden was done in by a slightly slower ball, while Raina miscued to Mahela Jayawardene at cover after slamming a six over his favourite wide long-on region. Punjab needed only 10 to win, and Jayawardene and Yuvraj Singh polished them off with two deliveries to spare, sparking massive celebrations in the Punjab camp.
Theron walked away with Man-of-the-Match honours, and this after landing in India only hours before the match started. "The time difference is not too bad from South Africa," he said. "I got a bit of a late night last night, but had a good run this morning in the nets. I just hoped for the best, and it worked out alright today."
For a team struggling to keep the runs down, with its pace spearhead, Brett Lee, still unfit, allrounder James Hopes' injury keeping him out for at least three weeks, and another senior bowler, Sreesanth, woefully out-of-form, Theron's ability to bowl accurately and at a decent clip is exactly what they need. All signs also point to a sound temperament, which should also come in handy in a tough format for bowlers.
Theron, though, will do well to heed the lessons learnt by another little-known South African, who made a flying start to his IPL career. Royal Challengers Bangalore's Dillon du Preez took three wickets - including those of Sachin Tendulkar and JP Duminy - in two early overs on his debut last season, but has not got a game since an ordinary second match.
After Sunday's show against Chennai, Theron's bowling will be more closely analysed by the opposition, and whether he can continue to match the heroics of the Pro20 on the unfriendly and unfamiliar conditions here will determine if he gets a long run in the IPL, or perhaps a spot in South Africa's XI at the World Twenty20.