Times of Oman
Cricket Column: MS-Smith chemistry turns on Pune magic
May 17, 2017 | 5:19 PM
by Prasad Panicker/Beyond the Boundary
Rising Pune Supergiant's captain Steve Smith, left, and MS Dhoni.
 
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For a team that finished second from the bottom of the table in 2016 to the second best at the end of the preliminary rounds in 2017 and, now, to the final, with four full days on hand to relax a bit and relish the moments and then to practise and perfect their plot to make one last hurray on May 21, it has been an incredible season for Rising Pune Supergiant (RPS).

So, what’s really the secret science behind the Giant strides?

The million-dollar man Ben Stokes? Pune had won even when Stokes sat on the bench in the preliminary rounds and, now, in the qualifier when the all-rounder had left the IPL dugout to join the England team’s training camp for the Champions Trophy. Except for that one game in which he scored a match-winning century, Stokes had not been the single face and force behind Pune’s march forward.

The all-class Ajinkya Rahane? The Indian star started well scoring 60 in the first match but he had seldom been the rock he should have been ever since for Pune, until the big-ticket event on Tuesday.

The unexpected hero Rahul Tripathi who pumped momentum into Pune in the powerplay? The youngster drafted in to give the team some local flavour to connect themselves to the home crowd grabbed his opportunities with aggressive performances. He came close to scoring a century in one of the matches, and he could take credit for winning that game for the team, but he had failed in the key games towards the end.

The unsung bowling heroes Jaydev Unadkat and Shardul Thakur? Both had played their heart out.

Unadkat’s hat-trick-maiden last over against Sunrisers Hyderabad on May 4 and his brilliant efforts — the first ball dismissal of Martin Guptill and the direct hit that sent Eoin Morgan back to the dressing room as well as the catch that accounted for Rahul Tewatia — in the must-win last preliminary match against Kings XI Punjab were outstanding.

Thakur has paired up well with Unadkat in the opening and closing overs and his three wickets for 19 runs off four overs against Punjab on May 14 was among the best things that happened for Pune. But, beyond that, no one expected anyone of them, singlehandedly or together, to win it for Pune —and they hadn’t.

The teen sensation Washington Sundar? He has operated in the powerplay overs bravely and on Tuesday clipped the wings of Mumbai Indians with three quick, crucial wickets — that of Rohit Sharma, Ambati Rayudu and Kieron Pollard — inside the first eight overs to reduce Mumbai to 51 for four. The youngster has miles to go before he gets bold enough to experiment with his line and length and emerge as a consistent match-winner.

That leaves us with two other names: Steve Smith and MS Dhoni.

Smith has done all right with the bat but his failures in key matches, especially in the play-off that reduced Pune to 9 for two inside the first two overs, were glaring. A good captain, the faith he showed in Sunder on Tuesday and the way he positioned himself at short midwicket to scoop up those low catches to dismiss Rayudu and Pollard was awesome.

Dhoni was the leader got dumped by the owner a day before player auctions were to happen. The man who was covertly denounced by the owner’s brother after the very first game of the season with a twitter reminder of the owner’s pride in changing the leader, which was followed by a screenshot story on the strike rate aimed at piling on the humiliation and the seemingly innocent hero worship with lurking malicious bias.

To say that Dhoni was the force behind Pune is to say that Smith was the man who made things happen for Pune. Both views are not entirely wrong, or not completely true. What is beyond doubt is the apparent truth: the secret of Pune’s success is the chemistry that has either emerged itself over time out of a need felt by both the guys or very carefully crafted and cleverly nourished by them.

Smith arrived in Pune a few days before the start of the season saying he had “plenty of guys to talk to” but was “not going to seek too many options”. There was, at that time, a hint of trouble about to brew between Dhoni and Smith, but the events that followed were surprisingly and unpredictably pleasing.

Dhoni had a poor run in the first three games, but Smith was all support: he was not bothered about Dhoni’s form. Soon we got to see Smith seeking tips from Dhoni and Dhoni taking charge of the field set-up. By the time Pune had reached the last match of the league, Dhoni had done his part: as a batsman by way of providing the momentum or the stability the situation required; as the experienced leader by way of guiding the juniors as well as sharing his thoughts with Smith; and as the legend of the game by way of establishing a smooth relation with international stars such as Ben Stokes who, on reaching England after his IPL duty, had all praise for Dhoni, “the epitome of calmness”.

Smith could have acted a bit arrogant on the strength of the owners’ support, and Dhoni could have been indifferent and limit himself just to his task, which was keeping the wicket and batting. Instead, there was respect, camaraderie and commitment. A few days ago Smith posted on Instagram a video of his new-found hobby, which was flying drones, and the caption said it all: “Even got Mahi smashing a big six at practice.”

If the Pune march is an exciting outcome of things small and big, and people big and small, bonding well, the glue that keeps the bond in place is the chemistry between Smith and Dhoni. A view borne simply out of the mathematics we got to read on the scoreboard, whether it related to the knack of jacking up the strike rate or the art of accommodation as evident in the Stokes’ comment on the open-door diplomacy exhibited by Dhoni, would be a logical fallacy if we missed the intercontinental chemistry playing its spontaneous role.

*****

The writer is a freelance contributor based in India. All the views and opinions expressed in the article are solely those of the author and do not reflect those of Times of Oman


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