The Gujarat Titans may have lost a game in IPL 2022, a rare event in itself, but even in defeat, they showed that there are pieces falling in place that make their foundation even more solid.
The defeat to Punjab Kings itself is not too worrisome. It’s the IPL, it’s ten teams built on an equal budget drawing from the best players in the world, and the cliché that any team can beat another on their day is actually true. Titans bucked the trend by putting in a range of sparkling, consistent and mesmerising performances across the season. By rights, the second loss should have come much earlier. That it has taken ten games to come is testament to how well the team has gelled, and how superbly they have performed.
But even in defeat, there were positives. Another cliché, but another one that’s true.
Take Wriddhiman Saha. He’s gone a little under the radar perhaps, in the Titans’ recent successes, as you tend to do when Rashid Khan and Rahul Tewatia are reeling in impossible required rates in death overs. But Saha’s addition to the top of the order, and his finding the form that has made him among the IPL’s quickest powerplay scorers in history, is massive.
Here’s a stat: in the IPL, Saha’s powerplay strike rate of 134.21 is bettered by only six players ever, given at least 500 balls faced in the powerplay: Prithvi Shaw, Jos Buttler, Virender Sehwag, Chris Lynn, Suryakumar Yadav and David Warner. Right now, Saha is even fractionally ahead of Chris Gayle (134.17) and Adam Gilchrist (134.07). Each of these men are acknowledged blasters of the cricket ball, and they’re perceived as such in a manner Saha is not. Yet, he’s right up there in an elite list, across a large sample size.
And in his last three games, Saha has shown why. He’s remarkably efficient at picking off the runs with the field up. He’s already got the gift of timing and placement, but when the field is up, he can go over the top much more easily too.
“I’ve played with Wriddhiman for a couple of years at Kings XI back in the day,” David Miller said after the loss to Punjab. “From my experience with him, and even now, he’s such a cool, calm, collected player. He’s so neat behind, he’s got amazing hands with the gloves. And batting up front, he really does take on the powerplay for us and gets us good starts. So since he’s come in, we’ve had better starts to the powerplays with him. I just feel that his experience, his calmness, is very much felt amongst the team. That he’s under control. It’s great to have him part of the team. He’s the Silent Assassin.”
When IPL 2022 began, Titans had two good wicketkeeping options to use at the top of the order. But wanting to strengthen the bowling with the addition of Alzarri Joseph meant that between Matthew Wade and Saha, it was Saha who slotted into the XI. His addition meant the Titans could have much greater balance, alongwith having one of the best hands in the world behind the stumps. It only needed Saha the batter to deliver to complete the jigsaw.
However, in his first two matches, Saha had made 11 off 18 against Chennai Super Kings, and 25 off 25 against Kolkata Knight Riders. Coming into the match against Sunrisers Hyderabad, Saha needed to rediscover his best self. What he did was go even better, clattering 68 off 38, an innings that only ended when Umran Malik homed in on a 153 kmph yorker on the stumps that would get any batter out, anywhere. That innings ensured that when the Rashid-Tewatia death overs combo came about, they were in a place where the target was still at least possible.
The 29 against Royal Challengers Bangalore was also a little gem, kickstarting the innings at tempo when faced with a fairly substantial chase, against another quality attack.
Even in the defeat to Punjab Kings, Saha’s innings had been bright. Don’t look at only the eventual score of 21 off 17, look at the way he played. He was looking to be aggressive throughout, to hit shots and pick gaps. The nature of T20 batting is such that there will be times when that doesn’t translate to a high strike rate, but as long as the process and intent is right, you will succeed more often than not. Saha’s record has shown amply that he succeeds often enough.
After that knock against Bangalore, captain Hardik Pandya was asked about the value Saha had added to the team. “Wriddhi has been tremendous,” Hardik had said. “Having two, kind of difficult games, coming and doing what he did in the last game, and again today showing the kind of confidence he’s carrying. It’s special to be honest. Not getting a chance in the first couple of games, whenever you get a chance that is the right way you kind of make use of any opportunity given.”
Do not forget too, that the Titans became the first team this IPL to bat first in a night game after winning the toss. As Hardik explained, the rationale was clear: with their position already so secure, the Titans were deliberately testing themselves in unfavourable conditions, so that if they have to face them at a more crucial stage of the tournament, they’ll be better prepared.
Any team would be happier with a win than a loss, but with the Titans, the loss isn’t a complete write-off.