When India loses five wickets in the first half of a gargantuan chase, especially at new venues that are built outside the main city, the stands start emptying, hoping to beat the traffic more than hoping for a miracle on the ground.
But on Thursday night, none of the 30,460 spectators moved from their seats at the Maharashtra Cricket Association stadium in Pune, even when India was in the doldrums at 57 for five in the 10th over, in the hunt for an improbable 207-run mark. The reason: Suryakumar Yadav was at the crease.
Suryakumar, India’s brightest spot in 2022, did his bit. But it was Axar Patel (65 off 31 balls) who brought India right back in the second T20I versus Sri Lanka. Even after Suryakumar departed after a trademark fifty (51, 36b, 3x4, 3x6), Axar found an unlikely ally in Shivam Mavi.
He may not have been able to seal the series for India but Axar overshadowed Sri Lanka captain Dasun Shanaka’s onslaught that helped Sri Lanka put up the highest individual total in a T20I at the venue. Shanaka’s sensational hitting - registering Sri Lanka’s fastest T20I fifty - was a fitting finale to its innings, after a strong foundation laid by opener Kusal Mendis and Charith Asalanka’s charge in the middle overs.
In the end, the 68 runs that Shanaka and Chamika Karunaratne added in the last four overs - along with India’s seven no balls and four wides - turned out to be the decisive factor as Sri Lanka won by 16 runs, thus setting up a tantalising series-decider in Rajkot on Saturday.
Axar, though, was sensational with his pick-up shots. The all-rounder was phenomenal against pace and spin alike. His mockery of the spin duo of Wanindu Hasaranga and Maheesh Theekshana was amazing. He read the turn and flight to precision, literally hitting the ball out of the park whenever he wished.
That he overshadowed Suryakumar during their 91-run association off just 40 balls is in itself a testament to his form on the night. Just when the partnership was appearing to be threatening, Suryakumar holed out to long-on off left-arm pacer Dilshan Madushanka.
Thanks to Mavi hitting Madushanka for 16 runs off three balls, the equation was brought down to 33 runs off the last two overs. But Kasun Rajitha - who opened the floodgates early on - conceded 12 runs in the penultimate over.
And Shanaka bowled a perfect last over to ensure Axar did not steal the limelight entirely from him.