This was a thriller that should have never come down to the last ball. But a combination of nerves, poor shot selection from Gujarat Lions and outstanding fielding by Rising Pune Supergiants kept the game alive till the end. On a night when Steven Smith made a century and Dwayne Smith made a bruising 37-ball 63, it was birthday boy James Faulkner who hammered the final nail into the coffin as Lions chased down 196 with three wickets in hand to consolidate their position at the top of the standings.
Steven Smith’s surgical precision, fast hands, quick feet and strong wrists fetched him a maiden T20 century that would have had the status of match-winning on most nights. But it was put to shade by a brutal exhibition of power hitting from Brendon McCullum and Dwayne Smith. Their 93-run opening stand in 8.1 overs allowed Suresh Raina (34) and Dinesh Karthik (33) the rare luxury of playing themselves in and take the chase right till the end.
When Karthik holed out to Rahane at deep midwicket Lions needed 30 off 22. But just when it looked like they had closed the game out, came two further blows of Dwayne Bravo and Ravindra Jadeja immediately after an outstanding four-run over from rookie legspinner M Ashwin that reduced the equation to 20 off the last two overs.
The pressure was back on the Lions, although briefly as Dinda’s half-tracker was picked into the fine leg boundary to reduce the equation to nine off the final over. Into the home stretch by then, Faulkner held his shape to swing the first ball into the square leg boundary to tilt the scales in Lions’ favour. Raina’s wicket with Lions needing three off three balls gave Supergiants a sniff. Ishan Kishan’s run out by Saurabh Tiwary’s direct hit at mid-off made it three from two, before the body blow was delivered.
For the first three overs of the chase, Dwayne Smith enjoyed the McCullum show from the best seat in the house. Then he lay into Dinda and R Ashwin to catch up as Lions wiped out 72 in the Powerplay. By then, Smith was on overdrive, swinging and connecting most deliveries in his hitting arc between deep midwicket and long-on.
Having been at the receiving end of the openers’ fury against pace and spin, MS Dhoni introduced Rajat Bhatia in the seventh over in a bid to apply the squeeze. It worked as McCullum scooped one to short fine leg in the ninth over to give Supergiants a respite. Smith was least affected by that though, throwing R Ashwin off rhythm with two boundaries in the following over to drive the chase. Having swung his way to nine fours and a six, there was unmistakable authority over his batting, until he inside-edged Thisara Perera’s yorker onto the stumps. By then, the equation was down to 81 off 55 balls, easy by modern-day standards, which Raina and Karthik brought down further by milking the singles with the odd boundary.
There was hardly a sign of this being a cruise for the Lions when they were on the field. For the second time in a row, their bowlers repeatedly missed their mark as Steven Smith and Ajinkya Rahane established the credentials of the surface in an enterprising 111-run second-wicket stand.
Saurabh Tiwary’s run-out in the third over was hardly a deterrent as Smith was immediately into his stride, easing the pressure off Rahane with a flurry of boundaries up front. For a while, Lions overdid the short stuff into his body, only to get picked away off his hip. When the ball was full, Smith sent the bowlers on a hiding to nothing by unleashing his powerful drives. Along the way, he also received a slice of luck on 41 when he was bowled off a no-ball by Shivil Kaushik, the debutant chinaman bowler. The release was achieved almost immediately though as he teed the next ball for six.
Then after Rahane was brilliantly run out by Dwayne Bravo at the non-strikers end, Lions pushed their lengths further up, only to see Smith and Dhoni lay into the bowling. Dhoni was particularly severe on Ravindra Jadeja, clubbing him for two successive sixes in the 17th over, to take Supergiants close to the 200-mark. They nearly made a fist, but the first six overs of the chase, in which Lions wiped out 72 gave them a headstart they rode to open up a four-point gap at the top.