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Indian Premier League's comeback kings and bright young stars

One of the great things about the IPL is how the tournament allows player to stage combacks. Ajinkya Rahane and Piyush Chawla are proof

Ajinkya Rahane of Chennai Super Kings in action against Delhi Capitals.
Ajinkya Rahane of Chennai Super Kings in action against Delhi Capitals. (PTI)

Ajinkya Rahane’s IPL career was a flicker at the start of this season. He had scored at a run a ball with an average below 20 in the previous three seasons, playing sporadically. When Chennai Super Kings (CSK) bought him at the auction for 50 lakh, after Kolkata Knight Riders (KKR) let him go, many felt it was a token gesture to the former India captain who would be a standby.

But Rahane has played in the top order for CSK and has lit up the IPL with some stunning knocks. The door opened for him when CSK’s prize asset, Ben Stokes, got sidelined after two matches with recurrent knee injuries. Like a comet returning to the sun after a long sojourn, Rahane’s new avatar arrived with a bang at No.3 for CSK against Mumbai Indians (MI), smashing 61 in 27 balls in an encounter on 8 April at the Wankhade stadium, where other batsmen struggled.

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Comeback Kings

He was even more belligerent against the franchise that had discarded him, punishing KKR with an unbeaten 71 in 29 balls at the Eden Gardens on 23 April. His overall strike rate of 170 at an average of 35 puts him among the IPL’s top performers.

“Anything can happen,” he said in his characteristic low-key way after his blitzkrieg at the Wankhede. But there has been more to Rahane’s game than chance.

He has always been an intelligent cricketer endowed with classy strokeplay. Under CSK captain M.S. Dhoni, he got clarity on his role and the freedom to fail. His shot selection, thanks to his experience and talent, has ensured an acceptable success rate, despite an orbital shift in his strike rate.

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Who could have imagined Rahane would play such a key role in moving CSK from nearly the bottom of the table last season to the top four this time?

While CSK enjoys the return of Rahane, Rajasthan Royals (RR) reaped the benefits of sticking by young Yashasvi Jaiswal. The erstwhile under-19 star had a middling run of form for three seasons after making his IPL debut in 2020. Now that caterpillar has transformed into a butterfly.

Jaiswal’s average of 48, at a strike rate of 166, along with his brilliant fielding and catching, has made him a standout player in the league. There’s a new assuredness in his flowing shots and the 22-year-old appeared grounded even after a jaw-dropping 124 in 62 balls against MI on 30 April. and a flawless unbeaten 98 against KKR on 11 May. The latter knock had a touch of character at the end, when he hit a winning boundary instead of attempting a six to reach a personal landmark. It’s a pity that RR fell away after a great start this season, with some strange decisions like leaving out Trent Boult and playing Joe Root. So we may not see Jaiswal in the playoffs.

While we have been treated to some incredible hitting by the likes of Jaiswal and Suryakumar Yadav, little Rinku Singh of KKR takes the cake for hitting five sixes in a row off the last five balls to snatch victory from table-topper Gujarat Titans (GT).

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It wasn’t a one-off-blast either. The diminutive but muscular player packs a punch. He made two quickfire fifties against Sunrisers Hyderabad (SRH) and CSK, although both were in vain for his underperforming team with an erratic captain and coach. Finally, his third fifty gave KKR a win over CSK at the Chepauk.

Rinku Singh comes from a low-income family in Aligarh. It’s his sixth season for KKR, where he has been on the fringes, getting only a few games each season. Now he has firmed up his position in the middle order, averaging over 50 with a strike rate of 143 and gaining a reputation as a finisher.

Mohali: Mumbai Indians' veteran spinner Piyush Chawla has been in sensational form.
Mohali: Mumbai Indians' veteran spinner Piyush Chawla has been in sensational form. (PTI)

Bowling Comets

If Rahane reappeared in the IPL sky like a comet wielding a flaming bat, so did Piyush Chawla with a ball of fire. The leg-spinner’s international career appeared to have ended when he did not figure in last season’s IPL. He got a fresh lease of life this season in an MI team decimated by injuries to bowlers. With his googlies as smooth as ever and impeccable control over line and length, he has become MI’s leading wicket-taker, along with an economy rate below 8.

Like Rahane, Chawla got sold for a song. The 50 lakh MI spent on him was less than a tenth of his peak price in IPL auctions over the years. And the 35-year-old who has played in every IPL since its inception in 2008, barring last year when he was unsold at his base price of 1 crore, is enjoying his best season ever. Experience matters, especially for spinners who need to keep their wits when batsmen come hard at them.

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Ask 40-year-old leg-spinner Amit Mishra, who has maintained an economy rate below 8 and picked up 7 wickets in the 7 games in which he has appeared for Delhi Capitals (DC) on his return to the IPL. Unfortunately, a muddled DC camp has kept him out of several games and denied him his full quota of overs even in the ones he played.

Talking of comebacks, perhaps the most unexpected of all is that of medium pacer Mohit Sharma. Several years ago, he had made a mark with his slower ball variations, which later became Harshal Patel’s modus operandi. Sharma’s best year was 2014 with a haul of 23 wickets.

Beset with injuries, he dropped out of the IPL. Last year, setting his ego aside, he became a net bowler for GT to give their batsmen practice in handling slower balls.

The net sessions caught the eye of GT head coach Ashish Nehra who drafted him into the squad this year, buying him at the auction for 50 lakh. It proved to be a master-stroke as Sharma helped GT control the middle overs, taking 17 wickets in 10 games so far at an economy rate of 7.5. Not bad for a man missing in action for four years.

Two young bowlers who have caught the eye are Matheesha Pathirana and Noor Ahmad. Pathirana came into CSK’s playing eleven in the fifth game, after Dhoni tried a few permutations and combinations with an inexperienced pace bowling unit, deprived of the services of injured all-rounder Ben Stokes.

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The Malinga-style slinger made an immediate impact, as Pathirana stopped Royal Challengers Bangalore (RCB) in a spirited run chase, on 17 April, at the Chinnaswamy ground in Bengaluru covered with dew. With 35 needed in 3 overs, Pathirana bowled a brilliant 18th over, snaffling a wicket and conceding just 4 runs. The 20-year-old has since become CSK’s death overs man, taking 13 wickets in 8 games at an economy rate below 8.

Similarly, left-handed leg-spinner Noor Ahmad got into the GT eleven in the fifth game against RR on 6 April, and immediately made an impression with the wicket of Sanju Samson. In the next two games, the 18-year-old scalped Nicholas Pooran, Krunal Pandya, Cameron Green, Tim David, and Suryakumar Yadav, forming a lethal combination with his more illustrious countryman Rashid Khan, who brought him into the GT side.

While established stars like Rashid Khan and Mohammed Shami, Faf du Plessis and Shubman Gill top the bowling and batting charts, what makes the IPL really exciting are the rising stars and unexpected comebacks.

Sumit Chakraberty is a writer based in Bengaluru.

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