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Indian Premier League: The reign of the master blasters

The big hitting batsmen have taken centre-stage this season, with players like Rinku Singh and Shimron Hetmyer calling the shots

Rinku Singh of the Kolkata Knight Riders in action.
Rinku Singh of the Kolkata Knight Riders in action. (AFP)

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Defending champions Gujarat Titans (GT) were dark horses in their debut season in 2022. Not surprisingly, they began this season as one of the favourites. And two facile wins over Chennai Super Kings (CSK) and Delhi Capitals (DC) reaffirmed their new status.

But the Indian Premier League (IPL), bristling with talent, can bring you down to earth in double quick time and so it did with GT. The champions ran into two master blasters, and have now lost two of their last three games.

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The first shock came from Rinku Singh when GT were cruising to a win over Kolkata Knight Riders (KKR) in Ahmedabad. The diminutive left-hander smashed the last five balls of the match for consecutive sixes. The occasion wasn’t as big as the 2016 T20 World Cup final in Kolkata, where Carlos Brathwaite from the West Indies hit England’s Ben Stokes for four sixes in the final over to snatch the title. But it probably outdid the big West Indian’s feat in the sheer unexpectedness of it.

The reign of the big hitters

Rinku Singh has been a handy lower order hitter that KKR has backed for six seasons. But he had got only 17 games in five seasons before this one, without a fifty to his name. So 30 runs in the last five balls to win against the title-holders was definitely unexpected. The bowler, Yash Dayal, contributed to it by dishing out three full-tosses and two slow half-trackers. But it was still a stupendous feat by Rinku Singh who knew every ball was a hit-a-six-or-die situation.

Lost in this Rinku Singh thunderstorm was Vijay Shankar’s return with 63 in 24 balls. He had disappeared from the scene after an injury took him out of the Indian 2019 World Cup team. GT has a knack for picking up discarded players and reviving their fortunes, but Rinku Singh took the thunder away from Shankar’s knock.

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Shimron Hetmyer of Rajasthan Royals.
Shimron Hetmyer of Rajasthan Royals. (PTI)

GT’s second defeat came at the hands of a more likely master blaster, Shimron Hetmyer from the West Indies. IPL franchises haven’t always got the most out of this talented left-hander by sending him too far down the order. But with Rajasthan Royals (RR) floundering at 55/4 in the 11th over, Hetmyer had enough space to play himself in and then take the bowlers to the cleaners for an unbeaten, match-winning knock of 56 in 26 balls.

The handyman Riyan Parag preceding him in the batting order was a shocker. Fortunately for RR, Parag’s early dismissal for 5 in 7 balls set up the Hetmyer show, and hopefully we’ll see him batting a notch or two higher, going forward. RR skipper Sanju Samson too knocked on the door of national selectors again with 60 in 32 balls before Hetmyer took over the hitting.

Meanwhile, KKR’s second win of the season came from another lower order blitz—a century stand between Rinku Singh and all-rounder Shardul Thakur, with the latter blasting 68 in 29 balls. Royal Challengers Bangalore (RCB) collapsed against spin after that to lose by a huge margin of 81 runs.

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A KKR hitter who ended up on the losing side is Venkatesh Iyer. His 104 in 51 balls against Mumbai Indians (MI), with the next highest score in the KKR innings being 21, lost its sheen as MI won with two overs to spare. But he did set up the Rinku Singh show earlier with 83 in 40 balls against GT.

Iyer has been mostly missing in action after turning heads in his debut season of 2021. So, if his two big knocks, at strike rates of over 200 signal a second coming, KKR fans have an exciting season to look forward to from the left-hander.

Another young Indian batsman who fell away last season after impressive runs in 2020 and 2021—Ruturaj Gaikwad—is back with a blast. The CSK opener scored 92 in 50 balls in the season opener and his partner Devon Conway scored 83 in 45 balls on Sunday. RCB’s Faf du Plessis and Glenn Maxwell replied with 62 and 76 at a strike rate of 200 on the batting paradise in Bangalore, but fell short of the target of 227 by just 9 runs.

Former India skipper Virat Kohli earlier made an unbeaten 82 in 49 balls against MI came in a situation he relishes the most—a run chase. As for the star-studded MI batting lineup, the one who has shone the most is uncapped Tilak Varma.

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An IPL debutant announced his arrival with a classy unbeaten century. Harry Brook has been touted as the next big thing from England, but nobody knew how he would fare in Indian conditions. Sunrisers Hyderabad (SRH) took a chance on him at this year’s auction with a bid of 13.25 crore. Brook justified the billing with a century that took SRH to a mammoth total of 228 at the Eden Gardens, intelligently negotiating KKR’s three spinners and collaring the pacers.

Another overseas debutant, Kyle Mayers from the West Indies, smashed 73 off 38 balls in Lucknow Super Giants’ (LSG’s) win over DC. The powerful left-hander will be tested by spinners but his hard-hitting attitude in the powerplay takes some of the pressure off LSG skipper K.L. Rahul, who is yet to overcome his instinct for self-preservation to unfurl his full range of strokes.

Meanwhile, an old stalwart has been making waves—the evergreen Shikhar Dhawan. The new Punjab Kings (PBKS) skipper made an unbeaten 86 to set up a narrow 3-run victory over RR. He then made 99 not out in a losing cause against SRH, as wickets tumbled all around him. The two knocks came at healthy strike rates of over 150, and would normally have let him throw his hat in the ring for selection in India’s World Cup squad. But the man who has taken his place, Shubman Gill, is in sublime form for GT.

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Flattering to deceive

Along with the big hitters, there have been a few damp squibs. Ben Stokes’ saga of injuries continues, and he has been unable to contribute much after coming to play for CSK under M.S. Dhoni with much fanfare. And one reason for DC languishing at the bottom is the non-performance of Mitchell Marsh, Australia’s 2021 T20 World Cup hero.

The same applies to all-rounder Cameron Green, for whom MI shelled out 17.5 crore, making him the second most expensive player in the IPL. He is yet to make a significant contribution with either bat or ball.An unlikely hit, on the other hand, has been Ajinkya Rahane, whose services CSK acquired for a mere 50 lakh. He smashed 61 in 27 balls against MI.

The trend for the past few seasons has been that of batsmen getting more adventurous every year. This is true to an even greater extent this time, because of the introduction of the impact player substitution. It essentially means every team is playing with an extra batsman, which encourages more risk-taking. Old school players wanting to play anchor roles will have to do a re-think under the circumstances. Anchors are an endangered species.

Rahul’s 74 at a strike rate of 132 in LSG’s loss to PBKS is a case in point. Admittedly other LSG batsmen contributed little, but that’s partly because they entered the arena late while the top order dawdled. Nicholas Pooran for example came out to bat only in the 15th over, although in an earlier game he had scored 62 in 19 balls, with a strike rate of over 300!

Sumit Chakraberty is a writer based in Bengaluru.

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