The unfancied boys who stood out
The IPL has derived its star value from players who tug at the fans' heartstrings. Yet on the biggest day of the season, it was five unfancied boys who demanded the spotlight and eclipsed everyone else
"We want six, We want six, We want six." It is a chant the M Chinnaswamy Stadium is fond of. Kings XI Punjab were loaded with some of T20s most wanted, but the man enabling the Bangalore crowd's rapture was the most unusual of suspects. Wriddhiman Saha performed his regular mandate - easing a rocking ship - and went on to collect the highest score in a T20 tournament final. Yet his 115 off 55 could not script victory.
Four of Manish Pandey's boundaries came right after a wicket fell. All of them - a four off Mitchell Johnson and three sixes off Karanveer Singh - were defiant reminders for Kings XI to stay vigilant. The target he faced was the most demanded by a T20 final. He was the first Indian to three-figures in the IPL, yet since that breakthrough innings in 2009, his stocks had dipped. On Sunday, there was little of the scratchiness that usually disturbed his flow and he was able to translate intent into runs, 94 of the match-winning variety.
His greatest threat were two little-known spinners. Akshar Patel has squeezed and hoodwinked some of the most hard-hitting batsmen with nothing more than unyielding discipline. In Bangalore, with Knight Riders comfortably chugging along at 10 to the over, Akshar's figures read 4-0-21-0. Karanveer had played only one T20 before being thrust into the IPL cauldron, but the reason for his fast-tracking was understandable as he lulled the batsmen with his flight and drift. He claimed all his four wickets that way. Hardly the performances you'd expect to end up second-best.
Manan Vohra would feel similarly aggrieved. Kings XI's choice to retain him had seemed decidedly left field and further questions were brandished when he was benched for a majority of the campaign. Yet since breaking into the XI, he has left no one in doubt about his value. A steely innings of 67 was another example of his ability.
The IPL has derived its star value from players who tug at the fans' heartstrings. The Chris Gayles, the Virat Kohlis, the Virender Sehwags and the Lasith Malingas and other bankable, familiar performers are responsible for much of the tournament's allure. Yet on the biggest day of the season, it was five unfancied boys who demanded the spotlight and eclipsed everyone else. For an event that paraded its USP was enabling fledgling players to savour the big stage, the 2014 final was their best advertisement.
Saha and Vohra, arguably, had to face the more difficult set of bowlers, who had already gained a firm hold over the game. Defusing Narine when he had the comfort of a scoreline that read 58 for 2 after 10 overs requires a specific mixture of skill, clarity and some luck. The pitch was gripping and Piyush Chawla and Shakib Al Hasan ripped past the outside edge on multiple occasions. Both batsmen were basically surviving until they decided to shelve their doubts.
Saha chose to do that against Knight Riders' wiliest bowler and Vohra targeted their quickest. The ease and frequency with which they dictated terms in the latter 10 overs, which cost 141 runs, almost tempted one to wonder why they hadn't come out swinging earlier. Knight Riders had been content to let them run their course and it did seem one of them would give sooner or later. Yet the events that transpired only added sheen to their efforts.
Saha clobbered Narine for two fours and a six in the 14th over. His confidence seeped into his footwork and his bat face arced down at all the appropriate angles, especially when he drove between cover and mid-off. Hacks through midwicket and square leg were less pretty, but adeptly placed nonetheless. He had been 21 off 19 in the 11th over. By the end of his innings he laid claim to the IPL's only century in the final, at a strike rate of 209.
Vohra was remarkably sedate at the start. Perhaps it was the glare of a big occasion that persuaded him from the mad dash he has been known for this season. Yet when Morkel chose to ignore a natural weapon - his bounce - and go full, Vohra was alert enough to pounce. A flick over midwicket screamed to the boundary and a one-handed scythe over point travelled the distance. A shot that signaled something that united all five players - none of them were going to back down.
"Ballsy" was how the Kings XI captain George Bailey described Pandey's innings. Knight Riders had lost Robin Uthappa, their trump card, early. Gautam Gambhir has not been at his best throughout the tournament. But in Pandey's company all he had to do was find a way to get to the other end. Pandey is fond of pressing forward, even against the express pace of Mitchell Johnson. He is also partial to the midwicket region and he was unfailingly brutal on pulling anything outside his half to that boundary - 34 of his runs came in that region, including four fours and two sixes. He could have been probed outside his off stump a little more, but only Akshar managed to do that.
It wasn't just Pandey who was having difficulty manoeuvring Akshar. Nearly every batsman found himself stalling. Knight Riders were 87 for 2 when Akshar was introduced and he began conceding only two runs. But at the other end, Parvinder Awana got smashed for 18 in the very next over. Yet Akshar toiled away. Only three runs came off the next over and he came within inches of dismissing Pandey. But his colleagues were far more generous. Another 18-run over replete with a half-tracker and a full toss, this time from L Balaji. In his final over, Akshar had to lend menace to an equation that was 21 runs in 18 balls. He conceded only six.
With the seamers becoming cannon fodder, Bailey's only option was to use Akshar to tie the noose and enable Karanveer to bait the opposition to stick their necks out. The downside of that plan was the legspinner conceded more than one-fourth of the target. But in the process a gung-ho Yusuf Pathan met his end, Ryan ten Doeschate fared no better and even Pandey holed out thinking he had been gifted a half-volley. Three strikes that dared Kings XI supporters to regain their voice. One more and who knew how tense things would've been.
All five players fed off their belief. They would not let an equation get the better of them. They would not yield just because they were up against international-quality players. However, only one of them went home with the winner's medal.
"I just give myself a lot of chances," Pandey said after he was adjudged Man of the Match, "I'm very optimistic all the time and I love to play [in] the crunch game. It's really fun and I've always done well, so I'm very happy. We got 10 in the first over and I though if we just kept playing like that we would get 200 in the 20 overs. That was my very simple gameplan."
Bailey was out for 1, Maxwell for a duck. Narine and Morkel were thumped for 40 and 46 respectively. So don't believe Pandey. Those five only made it look simple.