Nitish Rana gave the ball a good wipe. The reason being it was drizzling in Hyderabad, and the Kolkata Knight Riders captain had gambled on Varun Chakravarthy, a spinner, for the 20th over.
Captains generally don’t go with a spinner for the final over of a T20 chase. With Sunrisers Hyderabad needing only nine, Rana too was confused. Shardul Thakur had picked up 2 for 23 and had an over left. And if he really wanted to go the spin route, he could have given the ball to the experienced Sunil Narine.
Narine has been Knight Riders’ best bowler over the years. But this season, his returns have been underwhelming. This is the first IPL where he has gone for more than eight an over (8.76), and has picked up just seven wickets in ten games. Sure, the Impact Player rule has led to longer batting line-ups and people taking a lot more risks when they’re at the crease, but even with that margin for error, Narine’s numbers are on the wrong end of the spectrum. Twenty spinners have bowled a minimum of 100 balls this season; his economy rate is the worst among them.
So Rana decided to back his “best bowler on the night”. After going for 12 in his first over, Varun had given away just nine, including three leg-byes, in his next two, the 16th and 18th of the innings.
Bowling at the death wasn’t new for Varun. He had bowled in that phase at the latest Syed Mushtaq Ali Trophy as well as the Tamil Nadu Premier League. The trend has continued in the IPL as well.
But here, he felt the wet ball was “slipping a lot”. Moreover, no spinner had defended this few in the last over of an IPL game. In 2019, with Delhi Capitals needing six against Knight Riders, Kuldeep Yadav had forced a Super Over. But otherwise, the fewest a team had failed to score against a spinner was 13 (Delhi Daredevils against RCB’s Pawan Negi in 2017).
So the pressure was on Varun. “My heartbeat was definitely touching 200,” he said after the game. But his mind was clear. “I just wanted to challenge them on the longer side [of the ground] and bowl on the legs. If they could hit from there, it was fine.”
As he had planned, Varun went around the wicket and targeted their pads. The first two balls went for a single and leg-bye.
With seven needed from four and Samad on strike, Rana was now making sure the ball was as dry as possible.
Varun bowled the next one short of good length and at the stumps. Samad pulled it towards deep midwicket. Those extra 4 metres really came in handy. Had they not been there, the shot might have sailed over for a six, instead of resulting in a catch just inside the boundary line.
Mayank Markande was the next man in. Sunrisers head coach Brian Lara gave him some advice before he stepped onto the field. It didn’t pan out. Varun kept his calm and conceded only a single off the remaining three deliveries to seal the win. Knight Riders had defended 171.
Varun didn’t have a great IPL last year, picking up only six wickets from 11 games at an economy of 8.51. Midway through the season, he was even dropped for three games. During that time, he realised what he was doing wrong. He came back much stronger this year, and despite some fluctuations in performance, he has 14 wickets from ten games at 7.99.
“Last year, I was bowling around 85kph,” he said. “Somewhere I had lost my speed. So I went back, tried many things, and realised that once my revolutions go down, my speed automatically goes down. So I started working on my revs, and it helped.”
The results were there to be seen on Thursday night. In that final over, Varun’s speeds, in kph, were 108.9, 88.6, 97.2, 93.3, 96.3 and 107.8. The last one not only beat Bhuvneshwar for the pace but also wicketkeeper Rahmanullah Gurbaz, hitting him on the waist.
At the post-match presentation, Rana was asked how he decides when to use Varun, given he has been bowling much better than Narine. “I just see who is bowling better on the day, whether it’s Sunny [Narine], Varun or Suyash [Sharma],” he replied. “Whoever is bowling better, I try to give him the tough overs.”
Rana may not have realised it, but in difficult situations, he has invariably been turning to Varun this season. Among the Knight Riders bowlers, Varun has bowled the most death overs and the second-most powerplay overs, after Umesh Yadav. In fact, no other spinner from any team has bowled more overs in those two phases this IPL.
To Varun’s credit, he hasn’t let his captain down. In nine powerplay overs, he has an economy of 8.00. At the death, he has bowled 8.4 overs at an economy of 8.76. In each phase, he has picked up three wickets.
And he needs to continue in the same vein if Knight Riders are to keep their playoff hopes alive.