Steven Smith’s love-affair with the Maharashtra Cricket Association (MCA) Stadium extended to the Indian Premier League (IPL) too as another captain’s knock clinched the game for his team. If the second-innings ton in the opening Test against India showed his class, his unbeaten 54-ball 84 against Mumbai Indians (MI) at the same venue reiterated his stature as the world’s best batsman across all formats.
Making his captaincy debut for Rising Pune Supergiant (RPS), Smith controlled a steep run-chase with minimal fuss. When the pressure crept up to dangerous levels in the final over, he relied on his machine-like efficiency to secure a memorable triumph for the hosts.
Mumbai set-up tall target
It all began with Smith winning a handy toss. In sharp contrast to the bone dry track seen during the India-Australia Test match, the Pune surface sported a discernible covering of grass this time around.
Mumbai’s opening duo of Parthiv Patel and Jos Buttler set the ball rolling with a double-ended salvo. The latter was more severe and fellow Englishman Ben Stokes bore the brunt of his controlled hitting. But, the introduction of leg-spinner Imran Tahir brought about a major change in the equation. The South African star, who had been signed up as a replacement for the injured Mitchell Marsh, gobbled up the top three in a jiffy.
As it happens often, the cluster of wickets resulted in the runs getting dried up. Coming in at number four, Nitish Rana toiled hard to squeeze the gaps and keep the scoreboard ticking. Even though his progress might have been slightly slow in the context of Twenty20 cricket, the 28-ball 34 did manage to set the platform for the likes of Kieron Pollard and Hardik Pandya to launch the final blitz.
While the Caribbean gun-for-hire landed a few hefty blows before being dismissed in the penultimate over, Pandya took full toll of the last six balls. Capitalising on Ashok Dinda‘s wayward bowling, the Indian all-rounder unleashed four sixes and a boundary to swell Mumbai’s total to 184.
Smith takes charge
Ajinkya Rahane kick started Pune’s run-chase with a confident knock at the top of the order. However, his opening partner Mayank Agarwal perished in the fourth over without making a mark.
Skipper Smith strode onto the crease and looked to feed the strike to Rahane who was threatening to take the game away from Mumbai’s reach. As he so often does, the Australian cricketer read the situation prudently. Realising the importance of a substantial partnership, he refrained from attempting extravagant shots and instead kept manipulating the field.
When Rahane fell at the half-way mark, Smith had scored only 25 runs from 22 balls at the other end. But, their partnership had established a solid foundation for the batsmen to follow. Stokes, who had broken the bank during the auction, joined his skipper in the middle.
Sensing the need for both batsmen to fire on all cylinders, Smith also showed urgency and began to carve away at the target. With his unorthodox stance and targeting of niche areas in the field, the 27-year old presented a tricky challenge for counterpart Rohit Sharma.
As the game reached its tipping point, Hardik Pandya removed the hard-hitting Stokes with a slower delivery. With veteran MS Dhoni a bit slow in getting off the blocks, the required run-rate kept surging. A couple of relatively tight overs from Jasprit Bumrah and Mitchell McClenaghan brought down the equation to 13 runs from the final over.
The nerveless finish
With the front-line bowlers done for the day, Rohit had no choice but to rely on the military medium pace of Pollard for the all-important final over. But, the burly Trinidadian appeared to be well on his way to pull off a rabbit out of the hat.
The first three deliveries yielded only three singles. Smith would have wondered how a seemingly under control chase had come down to this. Under enormous pressure the find the boundary, he cleared his front leg and deposited a back-of-length delivery into the long-on stand.
Despite the six, it was still anybody’s game as Mumbai had four runs to defend off the final couple of balls. But, Smith dashed their hopes by nonchalantly flicking a fuller one over deep mid-wicket’s head. The timing was so exquisite that ball sailed past the boundary. Stamping his authority on the big night, the efficient right-hander had led from the front and gotten Pune’s campaign off to the perfect start.