It was a strange Abu Dhabi pitch. It offered slow turn and grip in the evening, but later in the night there wasn't as much purchase for the spinners. Balls from different lengths, though, kept stopping at the batsmen.
However, there was no stopping Jos Buttler on Monday night. On a surface where his captain Steven Smith - and all the Chennai Super Kings batsmen - struggled, Buttler almost single-handedly finished Rajasthan Royals' chase of 126, with an unbeaten 70 off 48 balls, and gave their playoffs chances a leg-up.
Buttler entered in the fifth over after Deepak Chahar and Josh Hazlewood had knocked over the Royals' top order with swing and Test-match lengths. Hazlewood then thought he had trapped Smith for a duck after nipping one into the pads, but replays detected an inside edge as the Super Kings' review went in vain. Smith kept shuffling across the stumps, but the bowlers kept denying him the access to the leg side. His first runs on his favourite leg side came off his 22nd ball and his first boundary off his 24th.
Buttler, however, needed just eight balls to find the boundary. When Ravindra Jadeja slid one on the middle stump, Buttler stretched out, got his hands low, and reverse-swept him fiercely over point for four. Then, in the next over off Hazlewood, he took half a stride across off stump, and chipped him over mid-on. Buttler was showing what the Super Kings were desperately missing: power, intent, innovation and clarity.
The Royals' bowlers, particularly the legspin duo of Shreyas Gopal and Rahul Tewatia, had strangled the Super Kings, and MS Dhoni's men just couldn't find a way through to unsettle them. Jadeja was promoted ahead of Kedar Jadhav to counter Gopal and Tewatia, but he managed only 10 off 14 balls from them. Buttler, though, smartly took on the relatively weaker links in the Super Kings attack by going after Shardul Thakur and Piyush Chawla. He struck 48 off 27 balls from them, and gave Smith the breathing space he needed.
"I think he came on with a really positive mindset and took the game on by playing his cricket shots," Smith said of Buttler at the virtual press conference after the match. "He hit the ball nice and hard and his mindset was really positive. He made things easier for me at the other end and I was able to get myself into my innings."
Sure, Buttler reminded everyone that he's a gun middle-order batsman, but, perhaps, there's still a case for the Royals to move him back to the top and give themselves a better chance at qualifying for the playoffs. In the middle order in T20 cricket, Buttler has struck at 140.75 and averages 26.83 in 171 innings. His strike rate and average as an opener shoots up to 151.75 and 40.12 in 62 innings.
A few low scores at the top for Buttler this IPL and Robin Uthappa regaining some form as an opener have tempted the team management to use Buttler as a middle-order finisher - a role he has made his own in 50-over cricket. The Royals' coach Andrew McDonald is also big on match-ups and maintaining a left-right combination. So, they have paired up Ben Stokes with Uthappa at the top and are looking up to Buttler for the big finishing kick. Smith even likened Buttler's middle-order impact to the likes of Kieron Pollard and AB de Villiers.
"Jos is obviously an unbelievable player at the top, but I also believe he's got the capabilities to do the things that AB de Villiers, Pollards and Hardik Pandyas….guys like that can do at the back end," Smith said.
"Those kinds of players at the back end win you games, so it's a difficult one. I heard Jos loves batting at the top as well, so that conversation is a difficult one, but it provides such great stability in the middle and the power and innovation that he's got is second to none. So, obviously we're lucky to have a player like Jos and the ability that he's got and the versatility he has in his batting as well."
The original finisher Dhoni was probably impressed by Buttler's innings, too, handing over his yellow jersey from his 200th IPL game.