Going into the game, the Sunrisers Hyderabad’s spin attack had fared the worst in IPL 2024. It all turned, literally and figuratively, on a dew-less Chepauk to hand them an IPL final spot. Aadya Sharma, at the venue, writes on how aggressive captaincy trumped conventional wisdom.

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Thirty-three balls is a long time in T20 cricket. At least two batters have hit a T20 century in fewer deliveries. A month ago, SRH needed fewer deliveries to hammer a century stand in the powerplay.

On Friday, a boundary-less spell of 33 balls led to Rajasthan Royals’ ouster from the IPL.

In a season where they have constantly outmuscled the opposition with the bat, SRH had a completely different avatar for Qualifier 2, on a Chennai pitch that played its part in the game’s numerous twists. For Pat Cummins, cricket’s own Midas, it sealed yet another finals appearance in the most un-SRH fashion.

It was by no means straightforward. When they were reduced to 120-6 after 14 overs, having put in to bat, it was clear that the pitch was a haven for cutters and slower ones. Sandeep Sharma and Avesh Khan were feasting on a track built for pace-off. And yet, spin wasn’t in the picture: R Ashwin and Yuzvendra Chahal, two of the most established spinners around, went for 77 in their combined eight without picking a wicket.

Defending 175, SRH had to deal with a lopsided boundary (61 v 72 metres) in a stadium they had won only once in ten games. 

More than anything, they had to make do with a wafer-thin spin bowling attack. Shahbaz Ahmed, brought in as Impact Player as emergency batting cushion, had not taken a single wicket in the last nine matches. Abhishek Sharma had bowled three overs through the season. Aiden Markram hadn’t bowled at all in IPL 2024.

With Shahbaz already in, they did not have an option of getting in Mayank Markande, the only specialist spinner among the impact subs, and their most successful spinner this year.

Before the game, SRH had the worst spin attack in this IPL, having leaked at 11.20 and averaged 54.38. In the middle overs, the economy still reads 10.59, the worst among all teams. Not-so-pretty figures for a camp that features coaches Daniel Vettori and Muttiah Muralitharan.

When Shahbaz Ahmed came to bowl the seventh over, Yashasvi Jaiswal was 35 off 18. Off Shahbaz’s second ball, he pulled out a reverse-sweep six. The chase looked like a cruise. Was the negative match-up going to work?

Three balls later, Shahbaz held his length back a bit, and Jaiswal’s attempt to clear him ended in a catch at long off. It gave SRH an entry back. They grabbed the game by its cuff.

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Suddenly, everything aligned: there was no dew, the ball was turning appreciably more than in the first innings (3.3 degrees versus 1.8), and SRH were operating on a dry pitch, despite oppressive humidity.

Cummins did not waste any more time, bringing in Abhishek from the other end and parking Jaydev Unadkat’s cutters. The left-arm spinner, who had been wicketless in the IPL since last May, nabbed Sanju Samson off his third ball. 

Cummins’ bowling change had been spot on.

It was Jaiswal’s first dismissal against spin in two IPL seasons, and only Samson’s second against spin this year. 

Over the next three overs, ‘Abhi-baz’ gave away only ten runs, prompting Cummins to push in Aiden Markram, yet to roll his arm over this year. Only when Dhruv Jurel hit that over’s last ball for a six, was the 33-ball spell broken.

When Abhishek accounted for Shimron Hetmyer the very next over, taking away the only remaining left-handed batter from the equation, the deal was sealed. It was the first time SRH spinners had taken four wickets and only the second time that RR had lost four or more wickets against spin in a single innings this season.

A school of thought was that Hetmyer could have been sent earlier to negate the two left-arm spinners, but his record against spin this year has been abysmal. Also, coming in in the 12th over was early enough for Hetmyer anyway. 

SRH had won the tactical game, out-spinning RR at Chepauk, a line you wouldn’t have thought you’d read before the game. Yes, the conditions changed, and there was an element of dodgy shot-selection too, but given how frugally stacked their spin attack was, SRH’s counterpunch on Friday was brilliant.

Bottom of the table in 2023, SRH are now one game away from an IPL trophy. It’s been a whole lot about their batting, and their canny pace attack, but it’s also been about the aggressive tactics of the leadership group.

After the game, Simon Helmot, their assistant coach, was effusive in the praise of Pat & Dan [Vettori] for their “wonderful relationship” and sticking to their philosophy of providing “real freedom” to the setup this year.

“The Abhishek thing [bowling to Hetmyer] may have been a gut feel, and if it was, what a wonderful decision,” Helmot admitted, revealing that their team meeting lasted about 35 seconds.

A little more of the same, and SRH’s eight-year wait will end.