Five years, three backroom overhauls, and five captaincy changes later, Sunrisers Hyderabad seems to be at its wit’s end. On multiple occasions, the side has come the most appalling cropper in its efforts to dismiss either of the opening batters of the mighty Chennai Super Kings.
Interestingly, Pune has seen the two most merciless pummellings – the first in 2018 when CSK openers Shane Watson and Ambati Rayudu made short work of a 180-run chase with a partnership worth 134. MS Dhoni and Co. won that game by eight wickets with an over to spare. Rayudu, eventually named ‘Player of the Match’, had remained unbeaten on 100.
The second instance is more recent. On May 1, last year, Devon Conway (85 n.o., 55b, 4x8, 6x4) and Ruturaj Gaikwad (99, 57b, 4x6, 6x6) forged 182 runs together to set the record for the highest opening stand by CSK in IPL history. The pair struck at 10.2 runs per over until Gaikwad fell in the 18th. But by then, the damage was done, and Chennai went on to win the contest by 13 runs.
‘Faf would be jealous’
“I think Faf (du Plessis) would be jealous a little bit,” Gaikwad had quipped about his former opening partner during a post-match interview with CSK TV. It was with the South African batter that Gaikwad had registered his previous best stand in Chennai colors—129 in 2021 against the Sunrisers! Du Plessis had shifted camps to Bengaluru, where he was handed the reins of the Royal Challengers after the talismanic Virat Kohli relinquished captaincy.
The memories of 2018, 2021 and 2022 returned to haunt the ‘Men in Orange’ on Friday when their bowlers huffed and puffed during their meek attempts at removing the familiar faces of Gaikwad and Conway.
It would have seemed that the SRH bowlers would take advantage of the fact that the dew never came on in the second innings owing to the clouds hovering over Chepauk. They did strategise accordingly, holding back pacer T. Natarajan to send in left-arm spinner Mayank Dagar as the Impact Player, as head coach Brian Lara would later go on to reveal during the press conference.
Gaikwad-Conway put up a run feast
But CSK’s dynamic opening duo made a mockery of all such calculations to make merry on the hard deck that the M. A. Chidambaram Stadium had to offer. Gaikwad (35, 30b, 4x2), in fact, made his intentions clear from the outset, riding the bounce on Bhuvneshwar Kumar’s opening back-of-a-length delivery to find the fence.
Conway (77 n.o., 57b, 4x12, 6x1) joined the party in the second over, being bowled by Marco Jansen, driving clear of the cover fielder to get four runs. Fate would have had a wicked laugh at Jansen’s expense if the 6.9-foot pacer had thought then that the boundary was the end of his misery. As it turned out, the New Zealander was just getting started.
Conway collected 22 of the 23 runs that came off the last over of the PowerPlay, hitting four fours and a six off Jansen’s bowling. Back of a length, full, bouncer, nothing seemed to fluster Conway, who ensured Jansen was never thrown the ball by Aiden Markram on the night again.
CSK head coach Fleming heaped praise on his compatriot after the game. “He thinks he is out of form, but that’s not the case. He is skilled, he is in the right spot, and it is a good combination with Ruturaj. We are happy with what he is doing.” Even skipper Dhoni, when the cameras panned to him seated in the pavilion after a boundary, was seen gesturing towards his teammates, pointing at the two batters in the middle, explaining how each of them was facing every delivery. The batting exhibition had just turned into a masterclass!
Conway and Gaikwad went on to add 87 runs for the first wicket, their fifth 50-plus stand—three of those are century partnerships—in the only 13 innings they have opened together. Just when it felt that another 100-plus stand was inevitable, Gaikwad fell in the most unfortunate manner. Conway tried to hit a grounded shot straight past the bowler, Umran Malik, who in his follow-through got a hand to it. The ball changed its direction only slightly to light up the Zing bails. Gaikwad, who had started to look for a run at the non-striker’s end, was found inches short off the crease. As he walked back, Conway’s disappointment was evident when he raised his arms to hold the bat above his head.
Their partnerships aren’t just about the numbers; it is evident that they share a great camaraderie both on and off the field. They can always be seen motivating each other while batting with brief chats after every boundary scored. Moreover, they never hesitate to take the singles and twos. Their body language is contagious, and it seems to have a ripple effect on the entire team. Their mutual respect for each other is evident in the way they interact and conduct themselves.
Take the 10th over of the SRH innings, for example. Off the fourth delivery, Sunrisers’ Rahul Tripathi went for a lofted shot that was cut short of the ropes by Gaikwad, who had dashed in from long-off. Conway, at sweeper cover, ran up to Gaikwad to give him a pat on the back. Gaikwad smiled.
The very next ball was directed wide of Conway via a switch hit, but the wicketkeeper-batter, athletic as always, saved a few precious runs. This time, it was Gaikwad’s turn to appreciate his fellow opener, and he did it with a ‘thumbs up’.
Seven overs later, when Gaikwad took a blinder at cover to see the back of Heinrich Klaasen, Conway was back to murmur something in the 26-year-old’s ears before enveloping him in a hug.
In the ongoing iteration of the IPL, CSK’s opening batters have notched up 493 runs together thus far. Beating them at their game is only the pairing of du Plessis and Kohli, who have raced away to 622 runs for RCB. It seems du Plessis did get jealous of the newest rockstars in the neighbourhood last season and is out to exact revenge!
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