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Match Analysis

When Head and Abhishek caused carnage at Kotla

With every passing game, Sunrisers' opening pair seems to be pushing the envelope further and further

Shashank Kishore
Shashank Kishore
You couldn't help but chuckle at the thought that Delhi Capitals decided to move away from their home ground for the first part of IPL 2024 because they wanted to give pitches time to recover from the WPL games in March.
Sunday night must have felt like returning home to see their fortress broken into, the safe ransacked and their CCTV network expertly dismantled. Such was the carnage Sunrisers Hyderabad caused. And Capitals could do nothing about it, except wonder if embracing the "tired pitches" would have been the better option.
Perhaps Travis Head and Abhishek Sharma might have adopted a different approach then. Or, maybe, they would have been just as effective - given the form they are in, they seem capable of taking the pitch out of the equation.
There's been so much written and spoken about Head's reinvention over the past year. Still, it is sometimes astonishing how he has been able to push the boundaries of the batting powerplay with every passing game this IPL. There's no slogging, but just proper trust in his methods that he believes will help him unfailingly deliver most times. There's also the small matter of receiving that backing from the captain and coach.
His opening partner, Abhishek, is much younger, but being around the senior circuit for six years now has given him a firm grip on what he needs to do. Sunrisers had raced to 83 without loss in four overs. Head had already brought up a barnstorming half-century and it would have seemed prudent enough to play Kuldeep Yadav out. Abhishek, though, is cut from a different cloth.
He welcomed him with three sixes, the last of them bringing up Sunrisers' 100 inside five overs. This may seem like a bit of daredevilry on the surface, but there's been a proper mindset change that can only come with maturity because the approach comes with the inherent risk of more failure than success.
This approach by Abhishek, of going hard in the powerplay may have been stamped and sealed at the IPL, but has taken flight away from the arc lights when he had identified this was the method he had to master to be different. Abhishek spoke about it candidly during the domestic season, touching upon how amid the Gills and the Gaikwads he needed to reinvent himself to be different.
At the Syed Mushtaq Ali T20s, Abhishek put all of it into practice. He was the second-highest run-scorer. His 485 runs came at a strike rate of 192.46. Abhishek's runs, more importantly, helped Punjab win their first T20 crown. It's rare enough to have a few impactful performances when your propensity for risk is that high, but Abhishek had proved he wasn't just a risk-taker for the heck of it. The consistency since then is merely a by-product of clarity and putting it into practice.
Head has been playing outrageous shots every ball, or so it seems, making jaws drop with the approach that has redefined his game across formats. To not just match that but strike better takes something special. Abhishek could've been forgiven for rotating strike and watching the best show from the other end, but here he was showcasing himself to the world.
Not only did he strike them clean, but he did so with a calm head, superb balance and impeccable timing, bringing a certain insouciance to his stroke play that made it amply clear that this was the handiwork of a proper batter, not a powerplay slogger. And it's this partnership that has helped the Sunrisers thrive.
"I just feel like Abhi's probably been the standout for me," Head said at a media round-table a night before Sunday's fixture. "I know he has come through a really good Under-19 program and that he's really close with a couple of guys who have excelled and gone on and played [Shubman Gill and Prithvi Shaw]. The way he learns and adapts, he's confident and trains all those things that I guess you see a lot of now."
Abhishek himself can't believe he has been able to learn off Head the way he has over the past few weeks. His three sixes in his first over off Kuldeep was just a proper demonstration of not just picking angles but also lengths and the bowler, both in the air and off the pitch.
In the very first over, Head had given him a blueprint against Khaleel Ahmed, who may have perhaps seen how RCB's bowlers saw their length balls disappear down the ground at the Chinnaswamy last week. So he went short, but Head was equally effective in transferring the weight back in a jiffy to access the square boundaries with the pull.
"We've been talking a lot off the field," Abhishek said of his partnership with Head. "It's joyful to watch him bat. Our chats are helping. He's someone I'm looking forward to batting with for the rest of the season. All the Punjab boys know I admire Travis for the way he bats in all three formats. Luckily we got him here [at Sunrisers].
"I'm very clear about my mindset and goal. I had a very clear plan in my mind before the IPL. I was clear about my batting style and performance and how I was going to do it. I'm executing well, all the hard work in Syed Mushtaq Ali T20s is really helping me a lot."
Remember that Kuldeep takedown?
It was not just a result of a pre-game chat Head and Abhishek had about the endless possibilities against spin in the powerplay, especially on a fresh surface at a venue with short square boundaries as the Kotla offers. It was also down to their planning before the game that involved facing left-arm wrist spinners in the nets.
"Personally, I try and plan really well for the spinners as they're the main bowlers for teams," Abhishek said. "This match also, I was very careful [in his planning] for Kuldeep. He's their main bowler. I watched his videos, I try to play similar bowlers a day prior, it could be any net bowler or local bowler, but [the idea is to] try to make sure they're similar to the bowlers we're going to face. That helps me a lot."
It's hard to imagine now that this opening partnership was discovered by accident. Mayank Agarwal's illness ahead of their fourth game against Chennai Super Kings allowed them the option of pairing Abhishek with Head, who incidentally sat out of the tournament opener. Now it is impossible to imagine them being separated in the near future.

Shashank Kishore is a senior sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo