For Pune to finish the league stage of IPL 2017 at the second place, behind Mumbai Indians and ahead of defending champions Sunrisers Hyderabad and two-time title holders Kolkata Knight Riders, is nothing less than a phenomenal achievement.
At one point when they were lagging behind due to defeats, playoff seemed a dream but now after they have pulled themselves out well, they look like a strong contender for the title.
Smith took over from MS Dhoni as the franchise took a fresh step but the road was not an easy one. Losing R Ashwin and Mitchell Marsh before the season were big blows.
But a stunning reversal of fortunes sparked following a six-day gap during the middle stage of the tournament, that saw Smith’s team win nine of the 14 matches to claim the second spot with 18 points, more than SRH (17) and KKR (16).
This has been an extraordinary run from a side that won five matches last season and finished seventh. The lead characters have been Ben Stokes, Jaydev Unadkat, Imran Tahir, Rahul Tripathi and captain Steven Smith, with a fine supporting cast.
In Ashwin’s absence, the spin bowling department was led superbly by Imran Tahir, who is third on the overall bowling chart with 18 wickets from 12 matches.
Offering fine wicket-taking support have been from Shardul Thakur (8) and Daniel Christian (9), but the contributions of Stokes has been immense. The England all-rounder, who at Rs 14.5 crore became the most expensive overseas purchase ever, shrugged off a poor start to the season by claiming three Man-of-the-Match awards to drive the franchise’s surge up the points table.
He helped snap Mumbai India’s six-game winning streak with 2/21, which featured a wicket, maiden fifth over and a match-turning 19th over, and then his clever variations against Royal Challengers Bangalore fetched him 3/18 in four overs. as RPS moved further up. After a brief injury lay-off, Stokes marked his return to the playing XI with a maiden T20 century, 103 not out off 63 balls to deliver a final-over win over Gujarat Lions after RPS had slumped to 10/3.
And while Unadkat walked away with the match honours in that first win over KXIP, Stokes’ contribution was 39 off 25 balls – the highest score of Pune’s innings – three wickets and two catches.
But a big blow came that he won’t be available for the playoffs, as he left for England prior to the ICC Champions Trophy.
Ajinkya Rahane looked at ease at the post-match press conference, as he has full faith in the international reserves his side possesses.
“Yes, we will definitely miss Stokesy because he has done really well for us in both batting and bowling as well as in fielding. But we have a few experienced internationals who have done well in this format. Lockie Ferguson has done well in the one game he played and Usman Khawaja is here too. We are not sure who we’ll play once Stokesy is gone. But all the Indian players are doing well.”
He also exclaimed that it was the Indian bowlers who have made table turn around for them.
“I think credit should be given to our Indian bowlers for the way they bowled under pressure and the manner in which they carried the responsibility that was handed to them,” Rahane said.
“Our Indian bowlers are not that experienced, so it’s difficult for them to bowl under pressure. But the way they bowled throughout the tournament, it was really good. I think our planning was spot-on. I feel bowling meetings and the way we practised was really good,” he added.
“We got momentum from that game and sustained it,” Rahane added. “If you see, everyone has contributed in all the games. Tripathi, Smith and Stokes got centuries, Mahi bhai played a crucial knock against Sunrisers Hyderabad. As I mentioned, all the Indian bowlers chipped in. Imran Tahir was very good. So I think there was team effort throughout these 14 matches. I feel even in the playoffs, we have to play together as a team.”
Rising Pune Supergiant was the last team to qualify for the playoffs. Standing in their way are heavyweights Mumbai, two-time IPL champions, who will face them in the Qualifier 1 on Tuesday (May 16) at the Wankhede Stadium.
The winner will go through to the final, while the loser will have a second shot at doing so by facing the winner of the Eliminator in the second Qualifier. Pune have done plenty right following a shaky start to the league, and this Maharashtra derby offers them a shot at extending what has been a memorable run. They’ve beaten Mumbai on both occasions this season, and their fans will hope for a hat-trick.