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Match Analysis

KL Rahul, Hardik Pandya, and a tale of two conservative fifties

One captain will face flak for his approach while the other batted the same way and came away with a win

Sidharth Monga
Sidharth Monga
When a match is played between two well-matched sides, you can't beat the conditions. Even in T20. The pitch in Lucknow was slow and low, and the boundaries were big. The slower the bowlers bowled, the more difficult the batters found it. Only three batters managed to hit sixes: Hardik Pandya hit four for Gujarat Titans, and Kyle Mayers and Krunal Pandya one each for Lucknow Super Giants. The moment you tried to force the pace, you had to take a risk.
A classic example of this is the 2017 IPL final between Mumbai Indians and Rising Pune Supergiant. RPS were chasing only 130, but for a majority of their innings they managed to go at only a run a ball despite not losing too many wickets. They ended up losing by one run, having pushed their risk-taking to the last over when they would have Mitchell Johnson's pace to work with, which Mumbai kept denying them until the end.
Months later, Stephen Fleming, the RPS coach, told The Cricket Monthly that had they taken risks earlier, it is possible they might have "fluked it, but nine out of ten times we would be 30 for 5."
In this match, even though it was just 56 required off the last 10 overs, KL Rahul seemed to have assessed that one of the two set batters needed to bat through, like Steven Smith did in that final. Krunal Pandya took the risks, but Rahul kept playing to the merit of the ball.
It wasn't much different to how Hardik had batted during the Titans innings. He took risks against the quickest of the spinners, in the 18th over. Both the captains decided early on that new batters wouldn't be able to score quickly from ball one, so the set batter had to bat through.
Sample what they said after the game. Here's Rahul: "We had a few wickets in hand but, look, it wasn't an easy wicket for the batters to come in and get going straight away. Set batter, you obviously want them to play and finish the game for you. That was my mindset but I should have taken a few more chances or just had to get a few off the middle of the bat."
Here's Hardik: "The way the wicket was playing, on the very high end side, we could have got 10 more. It was up and down, it was slow, they bowled really well. During the strategy timeout, we spoke about the batter batting to stay long. I fancy my chances of getting a couple of hits than someone coming in [new] on this kind of wicket. Yes we could have got 10 more, but this was competitive."
While Rahul said he couldn't explain what happened, the two captains' words succinctly explained it. Hardik said if Titans had taken risks sooner they might have got 10 more, but they could also have been bowled out for 110 while trying to do so. Rahul said he could have taken a few more chances, but what he left unsaid was that Super Giants would have also risked losing by a bigger margin.
In the end, Hardik managed to get away in the 18th over thanks to less-than-ideal bowling from Ravi Bishnoi. Rahul batted the same way for most part, and waited for the pace of Mohammed Shami. Super Giants needed 17 off the last two when Shami began the 19th over. Nine days out of 10, you'd take that in any chase anywhere. Nine days out of 10, Rahul would have made good contact with the on-pace slot ball and the on-pace full toss he got from Shami in that over, possibly hitting one or both for six. On this day he didn't.
Had Rahul managed to pull off the chase, it would have made for a healthier discussion on his approach than the vilfication that must be coming his way now.
The two captains made conservative choices; it came off for one, it didn't for the other. Or let's put it this way: both the captains waited for loose balls; Hardik got them and maximised them, while the loose balls for Rahul arrived too late and he failed in his execution. Rahul had made an assessment after facing the first over of his last match, against Rajasthan Royals, that Super Giants needed to aim for 20 less than what they had earlier thought was par. He was spot on.
That is the simple explanation of what happened in the match, but here is the larger debate. Batting is a fascinating tussle between finding the best strike rate and minimising risk. Does T20 need to follow this conventional attitude towards risk? We have seen enough instances of set batters being unable to finish games off to keep asking that question.

Sidharth Monga is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo