It didn’t matter to the locals in Pune whether the final league-stage game of the Indian Premier League 2018 held any relevance for their adopted Chennai Super Kings. Chennai, who were placed second, were assured a top-two finish after Kolkata Knight Ridershad sealed their spot in the final four. Yet, they turned out in numbers in what was a sell out on Sunday (May 20) to watch their favoured side finish second to wrap up the league stage, just below Sunrisers Hyderabad on NRR.There was context to the fixture, however, with Kings XI Punjabpossessing the power to determine their own fate after results went their way, with Rajasthan Royals beating Royal Challengers Bangalore and Delhi Daredevils taking down Mumbai Indians, leaving Punjab with the requirement of beating CSK by either 53 (or more) runs or with 38 balls to spare in order to pip RR by NRR for the final spot.
However, a fiery spell from 22-year-old Lungi Ngidi up front had Punjab’s chances derailed after they were reduced to 16 for 3. It was unconventional captaincy from MS Dhoni who bowled out Deepak Chahar to kick-start the innings, in tandem with three overs from Ngidi. The move paid off as the pair made the most of the seam movement and bounce, the pace-friendly pitch had to offer.
Taking the cue from Chahar’s opening over, Ngidi spotted decent bounce and realised early into his spell that the wicket was playing in his areas of strength. He attempted to hit the seam, pounded it on a back of a length and on the fourth stump line, irrespective of whether it was nipping off the pitch both ways. The end result of that were returns of 4 for 10 with a maiden, Punjab restricted to 153 and a Man of the Match award as Chennai picked up a five-wicket win in the end in the final over.
Five wins in the first six games to open the IPL season, and Punjab were touted to be as one of the stronger contenders to make the final four. At the end of their season, after 14 games, they have just six wins to account for, losing seven of their last eight – a tale of spectacular contrast.
It was always going to be a tough ask for Punjab to make the play-offs coming into their final league-stage game. Their batting was too reliant on Chris Gayle and KLRahul up front; their bowling on Andrew Tye and Ankit Rajpoot. R Ashwin, who was leading the side for the first time, spurted hot and cold. It wasn’t a pretty viewing for a side that had everything going for it in the first half, exit as disappointingly as they did.
“I wouldn’t call it a slump at all,” said head coach Brad Hodge on the eve of the match. “I think in this competition [it] is extremely tough to win consistently over a long period of time. We’re a new team with a new captain and we’ve learnt a lot through success and failures. I think realistically, our middle order batting hasn’t fired as expected. We’ve also been too reliant on couple of bowlers which have kept us in the game. We haven’t had consistency across the IPL where if our match-winners haven’t fired in the game, nobody has been able to pick up the pieces.”
After being asked to bat first, a top-order failure left the middle order exposed. Yuvraj Singh, who could’ve arguably played his last IPL game, was left out for Manoj Tiwary – a move that worked for Punjab as the right-hander steadied the innings with David Miller, adding 60 for the fourth wicket.
With form on his side coming into the IPL with a century and two handy scores for the Knights in the Sunfoil series in March, Miller was only playing his third game this season, with Aaron Finch and Marcus Stoinis, being persisted with. Finch, in ten games this season, has only managed 134 runs, averaging a measly 16,75, with his first five batting outings of the season reading: 0,0,14*,2, and 8.
“Stoinis is an all-rounder who plays a completely different role to what David plays,” Hodge told Cricbuzz. “Finch is probably known as one of the best T20 players in the world, as David is, but there’s some of the questions which will bob up, but the reality is that probably Chris Gayle took David Miller’s opportunity. He came in and took it with both hands. I don’t think the cricket world expected such an influence from the Universal Boss. We always had plans for Finch to bat at the top actually. And that sort of changed when the Boss came in. There’s a few other variables. Aaron missed the first game of the year, which sort of disrupts your first settled game.”
“For us, unfortunately, we have had to chop and change because our players have underperformed. We’ve given loads of opportunity to people. We’ve given flexibility in the batting order to try and find a combination. Unfortunately, the bottom line is our stats from 3 to 7 are not great with our batting group. That’s us trying to find the right combination. We know we don’t want to make too many changes. We really don’t, but we’ve had to force our hand because we’re trying to find what can actually work to support Gayle and KL at the top.”
Gayle and Rahul failed on the night, leaving the middle order with much to do. It was Karun Nair’s half-century (54 off 26 balls) that took Punjab to a respectable total in the end. But it was below par. With a total of 153, it gave Punjab’s bowlers just about 100 runs to defend if they had to make the play-offs. They put up a brave fight, but it wasn’t to be as Punjab ended their IPL 2018 campaign on seventh spot.