How Lomror and Patidar defied CSK's spin strangle
Pune was supposed to be a neutral venue for Royal Challengers Bangalore and Chennai Super Kings, but it was no such thing. A sea of yellow had gathered around the MCA Stadium a good three hours before the match, just as they'd done in 2018, when the franchise organised special trains to charter fans from Chennai after their home games had to be moved out. Dhoni fans made a beeline, the Kohli fans joined them, and it was as if the stadium was one giant party waiting to take off, with yellow comfortably outnumbering red.
As if to make the players feel just as at home as the fans, the surface prepared for this match - whether by design or accident - was right down the Super Kings alley. There was spin, there was grip and there was bounce. And when all these factors magically sync together, like devices within the Apple ecosystem, MS Dhoni the captain becomes a different beast.
Royal Challengers have been poor starters. Their scoring rate of 6.58 in the powerplay coming into this game was the poorest among all 10 teams this season. On Wednesday, though, they were off the blocks like a bullet train. Edges flying thick and fast, cuts piercing the off-side ring, but it wasn't until Virat Kohli 's majestic slap over cover for six that they really got into the mood. For a moment, even the yellows roared. But before the Royal Challengers could soak in the feeling of having started well, they were being choked. Dhoni's spin-strangle had just begun to take effect, and when this happens, he's in total control.
Moeen Ali was on the board second ball upon his return after a brief injury break when Faf du Plessis mistimed a long-hop to deep midwicket in the eighth over. In the ninth, Glenn Maxwell was run out trying to steal a single after a horrible misjudgment from Kohli. In the 10th, Kohli was done in by a Moeen ripper. He tossed it up and got it to rip in sharply off the surface to beat his drive and crash into the stumps. The top three gone inside 10 overs. 62 for 0 was now 79 for 3.
It was down to two unheralded players to bail Royal Challengers out: Rajat Patidar and Mahipal Lomror . Prior to the start of the season, you might not have seen both featuring in the same XI. Patidar wasn't even an auction pick. He was contemplating playing in the Dhaka Premier League, or a season of club cricket in the UK after going unsold at the auction. But before something came his way, there was a call from Mike Hesson, Royal Challengers' director of cricket operations, asking him to pack his bags and show up at the IPL. An injury that ruled out rookie wicketkeeper Luvneet Sisodia had given Patidar an opening.
Then there's Lomror, who has seen a lot of life and cricket at 22. Six years ago, he was part of the same batch of India Under-19s as Rishabh Pant, Ishan Kishan and Avesh Khan. While the careers of those three have progressed into the fast lane, Lomror, all of 19, was given the captaincy of Rajasthan's first-class side. It's a state known for its administrative challenges, where selections are often arbitrary, and teams not decided until the day of departure. As captain, he managed the team, the logistics, the training, and everything else.
It's among the harshest reality checks a player of his age can get at a time when he should perhaps have been having fun hitting the red and white ball. To his credit, Lomror's graduation as a big-match player may have come about because of the additional responsibility. It's another matter altogether that the captaincy would soon leave his hands, but he proved to have a good head on his shoulders.
In junior cricket, Lomror and Pant were both bashers in Rajasthan. Lomror was even nicknamed 'Junior Gayle' by Chandrakant Pandit, the former India wicketkeeper who is now a respected domestic coach, a man known to have a keen eye for talent. On Wednesday, Royal Challengers needed Lomror to channel the Gayle in him. He needed to win back lost momentum from the innings. On a surface where it wasn't easy to come in and start swinging straightaway.
This is where Patidar helped him. Picked seemingly because of a strong spin game, which Royal Challengers felt would be worth a punt at No. 3, he was quickly off the blocks, churning strike and moving the scorecard along. Off the fourth ball he faced, the first from Moeen, he got to the pitch and walloped a flighted delivery into the stands at long-on. And he went again off Moeen's next, trying to throw him off his lengths. Then as Maheesh Theekshana came on, Patidar sent a scorching bullet over a ducking Lomror to the straight boundary. What stood out about his shot-making was his clarity. On a surface with bite, he'd quickly realised hitting with the spin was the way to go.
Patidar's enterprise had a positive effect on Lomror, too, as he used the long levers to great effect. And within no time, Royal Challengers were back up and running with the pair adding 44 off 32. A replacement player and a middle-order reserve, who had spent five seasons at Royals but with little game time to speak of, were expertly reviving the innings.
When Patidar fell to an outstanding catch from a sprinting Mukesh Choudhary for a 15-ball 21 in the 16th over, you got the sense he had done his job. It brought out finisher supreme Dinesh Karthik, who initially struggled, especially with Theekshana bowling hard into the pitch and making him force the pace, but by then Lomror had set himself up for a final flourish.
Far too often in the past, Royal Challengers have lacked that one solid Indian uncapped player capable of bridging the gap between their top order and their finishers. In two innings alone, Lomror had proved he could step up. By the time Lomror was out in the 19th, he had bailed the innings out and given their bowlers something to defend.
It was still only par, but without much dew, it still was something to work with. And in making 42 off 26, Lomror reassured himself and everyone that his overall T20 strike rate of 120 coming into the season was heading north. He also gave a glimpse of his maturity and level-headedness as Royal Challengers fight to go deep in the competition.