Athlete news

Faf breaks his run-fast

The first notable thing that welcomed Faf du Plessis in India, after a highly dramatic Test series against Australia, was a shoe in Chennai. It seemed he would be remembered just for that flying political protest as first a finger fracture and then patchy form (87 runs in 5 games) hampered him. On top of that, even as he dragged back a match seemingly lost, the nervy history of South Africans in limited-over finishing stages must have flickered in some minds. But the man, who nonchalantly picked up the shoe and won over people’s hearts that evening, absorbed the pressure of a flurry of wickets to put Chennai into the final, on their return from the two-year ban.

If you take du Plessis out of the equation, it was a pretty iffy-nervy sort of a game where both teams spluttered around with the bat. In the end, it seems the mental choke-hold that Chennai have against Hyderabad (they have triumphed all the three times this IPL) proved the difference.

The game came down to two questions: What would happen to Chennai if Shane Watson and Ambati Rayudu don’t fire? What would happen to Sunrisers Hyderabad if Shikhar Dhawan and Kane Williamson don’t fire? Until du Plessis stamped his presence, the answers were eerily similar: tame collapses from both teams’ batsmen. Another thing came to the fore. Hyderabad can still trust their bowlers to pull off heists but probably not against Chennai yet, and Chennai knows how to wriggle through the tough moments and also use their reputation to sow doubts in opponents.

The Chennai hoodoo

Hyderabad’s iffiness against Chennai remains an unresolved issue and despite du Plessis’s heroics, their bowlers still are pretty good. Their batting remains a worry, and they fell to a series of soft dismissals – strangled down the leg side or chipping tame return catches to spinners. Seen through that prism, Chennai’s bowling wasn’t that hot – or rather it didn’t deserve such a bating collapse from Hyderabad. But such were the batting woes that if not for Brathwaite looting Shardul Thakur, whose end-overs bowling remains vulnerable, Hyderabad would have barely crawled past 100.

On the other hand, Chennai stumbled against quality bowling performances from Rashid Khan, Siddharth Kaul and Bhuvneshwar Kumar and looked out of the contest at 62/6 in the 13th over, or even at 92/7 in the 15th, but du Plessis wasn’t done yet. As it turned out, Hyderabad couldn’t close yet another game against Chennai. It didn’t look easy even in the 18th over, when the equation still read: 43 from 18 balls with just three wickets in hand.

That’s when Brathwaite, who had made the match competitive in the first place with his fiery batting, was walloped for 20 runs. Du Plessis came through with a six and three fours – all familiar shots from his stable.

The South Africa skipper is a batsman who carves the angles usually but with the skill and ability to hold his nerve and choose the right ball for a more free-flowing swing of arms. That six was because of the latter trait. The fours were all carved away, choosing the gaps and when Brathwaite came up with a full length ball, du Plessis crash-landed it over long-on. He didn’t move around much that over; he knew the pressure was on Brathwaite. The opportunities kept coming – a full delivery outside off, an attempted yorker, was sliced to the point boundary. A slower one short-of-a-length was dragged past short fine-leg, and the final full ball outside off, with three men in an arc from point to the ‘keeper, was nailed well to the left of wide sweeper cover.

Now came the moment that occasionally happens in the game. A man who had leaked runs gets a chance to redeem himself in the same game, with the bat. And with a bit of luck, floating in. Kane Williamson chose Kaul over Bhuvneshwar for the penultimate over, preferring to keep the more renowned Indian for the final over, but it didn’t work out. Not that Kaul bowled tripe. His first two deliveries could have fetched him wickets but Thakur got an outside edge first, then an inside edge – and both leaked through gaps for fours, and that was that. Thakur whacked the final delivery to the straight boundary before du Plessis did what many South African cricket fans yearn in limited over knockout international games: A match-winning six, and who could grudge du Plessis his moment? Arms were held aloft, and this time it wasn’t a shoe he was holding.