Sanju Samson played the innings of his life to mark his ascendancy to the Rajasthan Royals captaincy but fell two metres short of pulling off the most extraordinary victory after equally spectacular hitting by KL Rahul and Deepak Hooda hoisted Punjab Kings to what appeared to be an intimidating 221 in the teams’ opening IPL match.
With 11 needed off the final three balls, Samson dismissed the left-arm pace of Arshdeep Singh over extra cover for his seventh six but when he realised he could get no more than a single from the penultimate ball, he turned down the offer and backed himself to get the maximum off the final delivery – or a four to force a super over.
In the event, he sliced his lofted drive ever so slightly and it gave Deepak Hooda the chance to set himself at long-off and claim the catch just steps from the boundary edge.
If it ultimately ended in failure, it was a fitting response to last year’s wooden-spoon finish and a good start to a new regime that features Samson at the helm alongside a new director of cricket in Kumar Sangakkara. But when they look back at this match after the disappointment of an heroic defeat has faded a little, they will identify that their bowling – and particularly how those bowlers are used – needs some work.
The remarkable drama of the last few overs rather overshadowed a fascinating subplot that starkly outlines the economic imperatives of professional sportspeople. After Punjab were put into bat in Mumbai, the new ball was tossed to Chetan Sakariya, the 23-year-old left-arm seamer making his IPL debut, and propelled back to him between deliveries by Morris, no stranger to the competition but in Rajasthan pink for the first time and carrying the tag of them most expensive player in IPL history.
In an interview before the game, Morris talked at length about the pressures brought by that tag – he ended up costing Rajasthan £1.6m (£16.25 crore) as they went toe-to-toe in a bidding war with RCB – but as much about the security the money would bring him and his family. It meant that the South African, who turns 34 at the end of this month, would have no qualms about paying for his three-year-old son’s university education when the time comes, not to mention getting him his first car at 18.
Sakariya would not even be thinking in terms of such luxuries at the moment. His family is so hard up that he dared not register himself above a base price of £20,000 to ensure IPL selection and even though he ended up going for six times that amount, with his father unable to work because of ill-health, he has responsibility for his parents and remaining siblings – one brother tragically committed suicide weeks before the auction.
Both actually performed impressively enough in the initial stages – Sakariya snaffled the wicket of Mayank Agarwal in two overs that cost him 11, while Morris, brought on for the fourth over, went for 16 in his first two, although he asked Chris Gayle one or two questions, especially with his slower variations.
Perhaps Samson would have been better advised to stick with at least one of them for a little longer – even though Morris has a reputation bowling at the death – because when he turned to his spinners, all leg-break bowlers, carnage followed. Shreyas Gopal disappeared for 40 off his three overs, Rahul Tewatia for 25 from his two and although Riyan Pirag somehow accounted for Gayle amid the chaos, Samson, newly installed at the helm after Steve Smith’s departure to Delhi, rested him after one over.
One might sympathise with Samson as his other seam options, Shivam Dube and Ben Stokes, also got carted in the single overs he allowed them but the latter has such experience and ability to change a game that a vote of confidence might have been appreciated by the England allrounder.
It was, however, a measure of Hooda’s dominance that he made the free-scoring Rahul, who was operating at a strike rate of over 160, look pedestrian in a stand of 105 in 7.4 overs, and he brought up his fifty from 20 balls.
Morris was brought back for the 16th over to stem the tide with the score on 161 and no sooner had the words escaped commentator Ian Bishop’s mouth that “this is where Morris, as one of the best death bowlers, earns his money”, than Hooda had welcomed him by fabricating the wristiest of clips that soared over midwicket.
He went on to 64 from 28 with four fours and six sixes before Morris had him caught in the deep, the first of two wickets in his final over that gave his figures a flattering quality– the other, Nicholas Pooran, was superbly caught by Sakariya at short fine leg. But Rahul motored on, only stalling when Tewatia nipped over the boundary to flick a huge strike to midwicket back into play to pouch it.
Rahul’s 91 featured seven fours and five sixes and Sakariya, entrusted with the final over and unafraid to try some variations, deserved his wicket, and another, that of Jhye Richardson, with the final ball.
Rajasthan didn’t seem in with a realistic chance once Ben Stokes, promoted to open, fell in the first over of the reply and although Jos Buttler, demoted from opener to No 4, smashed another debutant, Riley Meredith, for four fours from his first four balls of IPL action, Richardson, his fellow Australian fast bowler, ended the England wicketkeeper’s fun and with it, it seemed, the Royals’ hopes.
But Samson was his usual fluent self – even his biggest hits are more romantic than frantic – and he went to 50 from 32 balls with the most beautifully controlled of upper cuts off a Meredith bouncer, directly over the head of Rahul, keeping wicket behind him, who could only stare at the ball’s arc in admiration. The 26-year-old might even have thought quietly to himself that on such a good batting wicket, hitters down the order could be worth their weight in gold.
Indeed, with Dube hitting 23 off 15 balls and Riyan Parag 25 off 11, including three sixes, who’s to say that his confidence was misplaced? There was even Morris, with a scoring rate of 158, long levers, and an enormous auction fee to justify, to come.
But Mohammed Shami came back to find Pirag’s glove as he misjudged a pull, while Tewatia chased a wide one to give Meredith, whose pace was more impressive than his line and length, a first IPL wicket. With 20 needed off the last eight balls, Samson picked up Meredith gloriously over mid-wicket for his sixth six and although he managed another, Arshdeep kept his nerve to take his third wicket and ensure that the Rajasthan skipper’s efforts were in vain.