Royal Challengers Bangalore had two of their three big guns out cheaply but Mandeep Singh took charge of the innings to set up AB de Villiers late surge, part of five key moments from Wednesday's IPL Eliminator in Pune
They had come to the Maharashtra Cricket Association Stadium in Gahunje to be enthralled by three batting geniuses. Chris Gayle, the smiling assassin, couldn't get hold of a two-paced pitch. Neither did Virat Kohli. Once both openers were back in the dugout for hardly any entertainment quotient, the onus was on AB de Villiers to fire.
But even the Protean was struggling to get going, more because of the conditions than due to the Rajasthan Royals bowling attack. At the end of the 14th over of the Royal Challengers Bangalore innings, de Villiers was stuttering on 17 off 21 balls. But the next 17 balls he faced saw 49 runs being scored, including three fours and four towering sixes, two each off Ankit Sharma's left-arm spin and pacer Chris Morris. Incidentally, the two hits against Sharma started the de Villiers blitzkrieg in the 15th over and the ones against Morris were his last boundary hits before he was run out in the penultimate over while attempting an ambitious second.
So much had de Villiers mesmerized the spectators that the crowd kept on chanting "A-B! A-B!" not only all through his innings but also during the Royal Challengers' time in the field to every nook and corner the master batsman was stationed at.
With three of the all-time best T20 batsmen in the world struggling to cope with a greenish, two-paced wicket, Mandeep Singh seemed to be playing a different game. He took his time to get a sense of the wicket, playing five dot balls at the start but soon after he opened his account with an off-drive. Mandeep then targeted the best of the Royals' bowlers, hitting Dhawal Kulkarni for four off his favourite pull shot and followed it up with a robust six over long-off.
Mandeep continued his charge to outscore de Villers till the 16th over of the innings. Had it not been for Mandeep's free-flowing 54-run knock, de Villiers wouldn't have had a partner to stitch together a 113-run partnership which took Royal Challengers to safety after the early blows. Mandeep, who was brought in from Kings XI Punjab during the trading window ahead of the IPL auction, justified the faith shown in him by the Royal Challengers. Kings XI's loss has undoubtedly been their gain.
Royal Challengers' turnaround in the bowling unit is attributed to Mitchell Starc's genius after his delayed arrival. While the Australia pacer deserves all the credit, the Royal Challengers' Indian pacers don't really get their due. On Wednesday, Starc was overshadowed in a way by the artistry of S Aravind and Harshal Patel.
While Starc's Australia teammate Shane Watson welcomed him with back-to-back boundaries in the opening over, Aravind forced Watson to chase a wide delivery and nick it to Dinesh Karthik behind the stumps in the next over. Patel, who was brought on in place of Starc after the opening over, bowled an excellent bouncer in his second over leaving Sanju Samson no option but to glove it to Karthik.
Even David Wiese continued to play a part by getting rid of the danger man Steve Smith. While Starc came back well to finish off his spell with less than a run a ball, the day belonged more to the supporting cast than Royal Challengers' main bowling protagonist.
Yuzi, the go-to man
Every time Virat Kohli has required a wicket in the middle overs this season, he has thrown the ball to Yuzvendra Chahal. The leggie has delivered virtually on every occasion and Tuesday was no different.
Royal Challengers were in firm control, with the asking rate rising well above two runs a ball. Still, they couldn't heave a sigh of relief as long as Ajinkya Rahane remained at the crease. After he had bowled two economical overs, Kohli changed Chahal's end. The leggie gave him the prize scalp in return, coercing Rahane into a mistimed slog, becoming the first spinner to join the 20-wicket club in IPL 2015.
Royals' only bright spot
Just before Kulkarni ran in to bowl the last ball of the sixth over to Gayle, Kohli had indicated to the umpires that he would opt for the strategic time out at the end of the over. Kohli would have perhaps wanted to discuss a change of approach with Gayle, who was struggling to gauge the pace of the wicket. But Kulkarni had other plans. He bowled a perfect straight ball that scraped through Gayle's charge and pegged his middle stump back.
In his next over, Kulkarni accepted a return catch by Kohli, his former India Under-19 captain, to celebrate his selection in India's ODI squad in style. A Royals victory would have been a perfect icing on the cake, but it wasn't to be. Nevertheless, Kulkarni's was the only heartening performance of the day for his team.