NEW DELHI: For Rising Pune Supergiant to finish the league stage of IPL 2017 at 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.
In their debut season in 2016 – they were one of two franchises created after Chennai Super Kings and Rajasthan Royals were suspended – Pune finished second from bottom. With a slight alteration in the franchise name – they dropped the ‘s’ from Supergiants and a change in captaincy – Steven Smith took over from MS Dhoni- the franchise took a fresh step but the road was not an easy one. Losing R Ashwin and Mitchell Marsh before the season began were big blows, and once the league got underway the team wasn’t helped by under-par performances from Ajinkya Rahane, Ashok Dinda and Mayank Agarwal.
But a stunning reversal of fortunes, sparked following a six-day gap during the middle stage of the tournament, has seen Smith’s team win nine of 14 matches to claim 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. How did this happen?
The lead characters have been Ben Stokes, Jaydev Unadkat, Imran Tahir, Rahul Tripathi and Smith, with a fine supporting cast. In Ashwin’s absence, the spin bowling department was led superbly by Tahir, who is third on the overall bowling chart with 18 from 12 matches. He has left India to link up with South Africa’s ODI squad ahead of the ICC Champions Trophy, but RPS can take some comfort from fellow legspinner Zampa’s three wickets in two matches one comeback to the playing XI.
The fast bowling, following Dinda’s horrible outings, has been spearheaded wonderfully by Saurashtra left-arm seamer Unadkat who is second to only Bhuvneshwar Kumar with 21 wickets in 10 matches. This includes two Man-of-the-Match performances, both against Kings XI Punjab: a career-best 5/30 highlighted by a hat-trick in a maiden last over, and on Sunday 2/12 to go with a direct hit run-out and fine diving catch as RPS clinched the second spot.
Offering fine wicket-taking support have been Shardul Thakur (8) and Daniel Christian (9), but the contributions of Stokes have been immense. The England allrounder, 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 match-turning 19th, 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 honors 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.
In a line-up comprising Rahane, Smith, MS Dhoni and Stokes, it is Tripathi who has made a big impact for RPS while winning praise from his skipper numerous times. The 26-year-old Maharashtra batsman was picked up for RPS in the final round at February’s player auction and got his first opportunity in the franchise’s third match, scoring 10 from No 4 against Delhi Daredevils. But once he was promoted to open, Tripathi reeled off scores of 33, 31, 59, 45, 38, 37, 6 and 93 to consistently provide starts while outscoring Rahane.