There was an air of anticipation among Mumbai Indians fans as Kieron Pollard and Hardik Pandya stood in the middle for the last five overs of their innings. After all, three of the most expensive death bowlers in this IPL are Royals men. And Mumbai - mainly because of Hardik and Pollard - have been the best hitting side in the same period.
This was Royals' make-or-break moment. With the season on the line, they could not afford to concede too many runs and set up a big chase, not against an opposition with Jasprit Bumrah and Lasith Malinga. With new captain Steven Smith in charge and protagonists Jofra Archer and Jaydev Unadkat getting it right, they clinched the match there and then.
Death bowlers have repeatedly got it wrong against Hardik this season. They've gone full and straight and Hardik knows if they miss an inch, he can loft them anywhere between long-off and deep midwicket. That's because his method is so very simple. He stands deep in the crease, converts yorkers to near half-volleys and then relies on his bottom-handed power to do the rest. It helps his balance - a key to big hitting - that he doesn't try to throw the bowler off gear by moving around a lot in the crease.
Against spin too, he backs himself to clear the ropes, whether he hits with or against the turn. This mantra helped him wallop 6, 4, 4, 6 against Pawan Negi last week with Mumbai needing 22 off 12 on a rank Wankhede turner.
Sometimes, Hardik's plans may seem high-risk, but he plays with the confidence that he has Kieron Pollard and older brother Krunal for insurance. Invariably, one of the three have provided the final kick to Mumbai.
Royals tried to negate this death-overs plan by keeping their best bowler for the end. Archer delivered overs 16, 18 and 20 and, having sussed up the conditions early, he relied on a lot of slower ones to tie the batsmen up. The ball was holding up beautifully and he kept cramping them for room. All Hardik could do was bunt singles and watch from the other end. Then, when Hardik was expecting a slower one, Archer bowled a sharp bouncer that zipped past his helmet and because Archer has pace, it gives batsmen little time to ramp or paddle. Hardik could only sway out of the way.
Lengths aside, Royals also worked out whom to bowl from which end. The leg-side boundary from one of the ends was clearly longer. By sticking to a middle-and-leg line, Unadkat, who has struggled, possibly under pressure of his INR 11.5 crore (USD 1.8 million) price tag, kept forcing them to hit against the breeze to the longer side. Archer was patrolling deep midwicket. It was a perfect plan and Hardik fell into the trap by heaving one across the line. The only mistake was Archer reacted late and fluffed his opportunity. Hardik was on 14. To add insult to injury, Pollard walloped the next ball into the stands for six.
Prior to this game, Mumbai's 70 boundaries were the most at the death this season. Surely, with a catch dropped and the batsmen going for broke, Royals were on a slippery slope. Fortunately, Unadkat's chance of pace worked and Pollard, attempting another heave, ended up missing a delivery and was bowled.
Then in the 19th over, Archer dropped his third as Hardik muscled another short ball to deep midwicket. The next ball disappeared, but Archer made amends in his next over, the final one, by going full, straight and hitting Hardik flush on his toe to claim an lbw. Mumbai scored 50 off the last five, and there was a sense that despite the fielding lapses, Mumbai were denied. Two hours later, it was clear that they this was the clincher for the Royals.