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Match Analysis

Patidar, Rahul and their different high-wire acts

Two batters walked two different kinds of tightrope, and there was room for only one of them on the other side

Existence can feel like a bleak and terrifying ride down a dark and twisty tunnel with only a wonky steering wheel for company, but there are days when everything is bathed in a golden light and it almost, almost feels like you're in control of your own destiny. Wednesday was such a day for Rajat Patidar.
He might have sensed this as early as the third ball of his innings at Eden Gardens. Dushmantha Chameera bowled him a fast, good-length ball that finished on a tight, off-stumpish line, the sort of ball that keeps batters honest even on the flattest of pitches.
Patidar stood where he was and punched the ball, meeting it under his eyes with a vertical bat, making contact just as he shifted his weight from front foot to back. The ball sped downwards, into one of the pitches adjacent to the match strip, and bounced over the right hand of the backward point fielder as he threw himself sideways and upwards at full stretch. His colleague from cover point then gave chase, and the ball kept him interested for long enough to attempt a sprawling, stomach-first dive before it eluded his fingertips and skipped over the boundary cushions.
It was a shot of pure timing, with no need for accoutrements such as footwork or follow-through.
Batting can be a complicated thing full of interconnected moving parts that only need to fall slightly out of sync for the whole mechanism to collapse. On a day like the one Patidar was having, however, it can feel like all you need to do is stand there, watch the ball, and let your instincts take over.
His feet moved when they had to, of course, nimbly and precisely, allowing him to do absurd things like step away from leg stump and carve a low full-toss over cover, one-handed. Or to skip across in the other direction and deflect a yorker over short fine leg, against the around-the-wicket angle. Or, more subtly, to unweight his front foot and pivot on his back foot to hook a short ball - a short ball designed to cramp him for room - over long leg for six.
Patidar's feet moved when they had to, but never more than strictly necessary, and the overwhelming sense that the innings radiated was of stillness. The stillness of the blessed few who have that extra split-second of time - or the illusion of it - to play their shots.
KL Rahul is one of those blessed few, and, in the sixth over of Lucknow Super Giants' innings, he hit a pair of pulled sixes off Mohammed Siraj that suggested he had minutes rather than split-seconds in which to react to the ball. Like Patidar had done time and again during Royal Challengers Bangalore's innings, Rahul simply stood still and dismissed the ball from his presence.
When he plays shots like these, Rahul looks capable of anything. It's as if he knows in advance what the bowler will bowl. Presentiment had to be involved, surely, when he reverse-lapped Shahbaz Ahmed over his right shoulder in the 11th over, his hands so quick you barely saw them move.
Rahul makes these shots look so easy that you begin to wonder why the intervals between them are so often spent so watchfully, full of strolled singles to deep fielders. And on a day like Wednesday, when Super Giants were chasing 208, you wonder even more.
There were no such lulls during Patidar's innings. He hit a four or six every 2.8 balls, and if he hit a boundary early in an over, it was only a prelude to piling more pressure on the bowler with undimmed intent.
With that innings fresh in the mind, it was natural to make comparisons when Rahul was batting. Patidar brought up his hundred off his 49th ball, for instance, and Rahul hit a six off his 49th ball to go from 58 to 64.
But here's the thing. Patidar was playing a blinder of an innings on a day when everything went his way. He timed the ball like a dream, and on the rare occasions when he didn't, luck smiled on him.
Patidar was on 59 off 34 when a top-edged swipe off Krunal Pandya ballooned and fell just wide of a diving Mohsin Khan at short third man. He attempted a slog sweep next ball and the ball beat his inside edge and missed leg stump by an inch. Then, when he was on 72 off 40, he mis-hit a pull off Ravi Bishnoi and Deepak Hooda missed a sitter at deep midwicket.
And Patidar's team was batting first. Rahul's team was chasing. Rahul wasn't chasing 112 off 54 balls; Super Giants were chasing 208.
There is often criticism of Rahul's conservative middle-overs approach - much of it justified - when his team bats first and ends up with totals that aren't as far above par as they may otherwise be. But this innings wasn't the same thing.
And it wasn't entirely about intent or its absence. There was a seven-over period immediately after the powerplay during which Rahul hit just the one boundary, but this was at least partly down to genuinely good defensive bowling, particularly from Harshal Patel, who got more purchase out of the pitch with his cutters than any other fast bowler on the day.
"Yes, I think now, looking back, yes, it was just about two big hits in the middle overs and that could have gotten us over the line," Rahul said in his post-match press conference. "It's not that we didn't try to hit those fours or sixes. We were trying, but in the middle they bowled really well. I think Harshal's two overs in the middle were what pushed us back a little bit, because he went I think two overs for seven or eight runs [eight runs], he didn't give away much, and he really changed his pace well. He bowled to the field, and that's where we were pushed back a little bit."
After that quiet period, Rahul, Hooda and Marcus Stoinis hit seven sixes in the space of four overs to bring the equation down to 41 off 18 balls. If Super Giants had been offered this equation - that too with Rahul and Stoinis at the crease - at the start of their innings, they would probably have taken it.
When the 18th over began, the predominantly Royal Challengers-supporting crowd were the quietest they had been all evening.
On this overcast Kolkata evening, two batters performed very different high-wire acts. Patidar risked his wicket with every audacious shot he attempted, and the shots didn't look all that risky when they came off because he was batting in a bubble of pure timing. And luck saved him each time he threatened to slip off the tightrope.
The risk Rahul took was to minimise the risk of losing his wicket, and to back himself and his colleagues to deal with a steep asking rate in the closing overs of the match. He risked losing and having his approach criticised widely, when he could have gone harder, scored quicker, been out for 28 off 16 balls, say, and earned praise even if his team had lost by a bigger margin.
The argument that a 16-ball 28 is a better innings than a 58-ball 79 in a chase of 208 is, of course, a valid one, and the argument won't need to be made any longer if T20 evolves to the point where most teams have quality hitters batting from Nos. 1 to 8. But Rahul - a T20 player capable of every shot, but also one with hardwired longer-format instincts - was batting on the evening of May 25, 2022, for a team that has had middle-order issues all season, and he was trying to win them a match in what he felt was the best possible way.
It came down to 41 off 18 balls, then 33 off 12, and then, after a spate of wides from Josh Hazlewood, 28 off 9. Then Rahul shuffled across his stumps, expecting the bowler to attempt a wide yorker, and got what he was looking for, misdirected so it was a full-toss. He looked for the lap over short fine leg, a shot he plays as well as anyone in the game.
There are days when everything goes your way, and there are days when they don't, but you battle your way through it and hope things work out. Rahul middled the ball, timing it reasonably well but not perfectly, getting a decent amount of power on the shot but not the elevation he desired to safely clear short fine leg.
On another day, the ball may have travelled a couple of yards either side of where it ended up, and eluded the fielder's fingertips. On this day, Shahbaz Ahmed leaped diagonally to his left, reached into the air, and landed with the ball nestled between his hands. On this day, two batters walked two different kinds of tightrope, and there was room for only one of them on the other side.

Karthik Krishnaswamy is a senior sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo