MI and RR faced off in the Abu Dhabi stadium for the second clash of the super Sunday. Among the 3 stadiums in UAE, Abu Dhabi has presented the best of pitches as there is still some bite for the fast bowlers, some bounce for the spinners, and lots of runs for the batsmen who are willing to stay in the crease and wither the storm. A loss for RR would have meant curtains on their campaign officially, while MI looked to seal their playoff spot as early as possible.

 Rohit continued to rest as Pollard came out for the toss yet again. MI won the toss and chose to bat on a placid surface at Abu Dhabi. Ishan Kishan and De Kock came out with intent and form from the previous match. However, De Kock soon found out the hard way that RR’s attack has a lot more zip than the CSK attack they face the other day. In the very first over, QDK lost his stumps to the menacing Archer to hand over the early advantage to the Royals.

Ishan did not look at his fluent best tonight and played a scratchy knock of 37 at just more than run-a-ball. However, he was aided by Surya’s brisk stroke-making at the other end as SKY raced to a 40 off 26 deliveries. The MI top order’s job is to set it up for the Pandya brothers and Pollard in the last 10 and the duo of Ishan Kishan and Surya did exactly that.

Shreyas Gopal, after a long time, bowled good line and length and scalped 2 vital wickets in the match. Smith intelligently bowled Gopal from the end with the longer boundary and trapped Surya’s mishit at long-off. Pollard followed in the same over, as Gopal cleverly undercut his spin to sneak under Pollard’s bat.

From there on it was the Hardik show for the first time this IPL. The best lower middle-order hitter at the moment in the Indian team is Hardik Pandya and for the first time this IPL his hitting prowess came to the fore. It is strange how certain moments in the game can switch on players like Hardik Pandya. The dropped catch from Rahul Tewatia in the 16th over was exactly the stroke of luck, Pandya needed to get his form back in the tournament. Then, Rajpoot bowled one of his worst overs in IPL history to bring the Baroda-Man back to form. A series of full-tosses and overpitched deliveries later, Rajpoot ended with nightmarish figures of 0-60 in his 4 overs as he conceded 27 off his final over.

Once, Hardik gets into his groove it is very difficult to hold him back. There are things a batsman does that indicate his return to form. The back-and-across shuffle for Hardik Pandya is a gesture that he has returned to devastating form. In the last over of the inning, he took the toll on the young Tyagi, as he repeatedly got inside the line of the ball and heaved them to deep square-leg and mid-wicket boundary.

Super-duper hitting from Kungfu Pandya took him to 60 off 21 balls, as he scored 27 off the last over of Kartik Tyagi. MI posted a mammoth score of 195-4, almost crushing any chances of a RR victory at the halfway stage of the match.

 Right, so before I begin the second innings, I wanted to speak about Ben Stokes’ batting position. In all my previous blogs, I have stated that Smith is doing a huge mistake by sending Ben to open the batting for the franchise. In fact, I have felt time and again that RR lost a couple of matches solely because of the mess up in batting positions of Butler and Stokes. Do I stand by my point still? Well Yes! Even after the belligerent century from Stokes, I do stand by my point. Let us find out why?

There was a marked difference in Stokes’ approach today as compared to his last 3 games. In the last 3 games, he was looking to power the ball, and hence he was always playing away from his body. The point of impact of the ball and the willow was turning out to be quite ahead of his head position and that resulted in mishits and false shots. Stokes tried to overcorrect in the last match, trying to hit the ball closer to his body, but that resulted in his boundaries getting dried up. Tonight, however, for the first time, he found that intermediate sweet spot where he timed the ball into gaps and the point of impact was also closer to his head position.

For a batsman of the caliber of Stokes, once he gets going it is difficult for even the best bowling attack in the tournament to stop him. Pollard tried practically everything but, neither Bumrah nor Boult nor Chahar looked good enough in front of a rampaging Stokes. His favorite hitting areas came to the fore yet again, as Stokes pierced the square-leg and mid-wicket to perfection.

Memories of WC final 2019 started coming back for MI, as each of their plans started getting foiled one by one courtesy of the Superman Stokes. Bumrah was brought in earlier than usual to provide a breakthrough, but tonight Stoke seemed at ease against Bumrah’s nippy pace as well. Could Pollard have done something differently? I think Rahul Chahar could have been given 1 more over, albeit he was expensive. He was the sole bowler, who was causing some trouble to Stokes. In a belligerent knock, where Stokes scored boundaries for fun, he hit just one boundary to Chahar in his 3 overs. Maybe, one over from Chahar could have done the magic for MI.

Stokes scored a classic century to take RR home in the massive chase. Sanju Samson played second fiddle and scored a 54 off 31 deliveries to ensure that Ben’s century ends up in a winning cause. So why do I say, that Stokes is still better suited to be at 4? The simple reason is that the ball did not swing much at Abu Dhabi tonight. Stokes is still susceptible to lateral movement of the ball. The 4 boundaries he hit off Boult in the 3rd over, was because Boult’s deliveries were not swinging from 3 quarter length. In fact, as you see the batsman who played second fiddle to Stokes’ century, Samson himself came out at 4 and got enough balls to bat. So RR’s concerns of their premier batsman not getting enough balls to face at 4 are a misplaced concern to be honest.

With this massive victory, RR mathematically still keeps their chances alive in the competition, though a lot of other results need to go their way. As for MI, much like DC and RCB, they are still stuck at 14, unable to get to that magic score of 16. However, for MI, it is just a matter of time before they breach the 16 marks.