Steven Smith continued to show that magic touch with the captaincy hat on, leading the Rajasthan Royals to an opening IPL 2015 victory over the Kings XI Punjab in Pune.
With Shane Watson ruled out of the game through injury, Smith was given the captaincy duties, and after playing an assured hand with the bat, the Australia superstar did the business on the field as well, as the Royals ran away winners by 26 runs.
Put into bat first on a green-as-they-come-in-the-IPL pitch, RR managed to post 162 for seven in their 20 overs, thanks to 30s from Smith, Deepak Hooda and man of the match James Faulkner, who also ended up with brilliant figures of 4-0-26-3 with the ball. In reply, Kings XI faltered right from ball one, eventually managing just 136/8 in their 20 overs as their own superstar batsmen – Glenn Maxwell, Virender Sehwag, George Bailey and David Miller -- failed to find their boundary-hitting groove, while the decision to keep Miller and Bailey had those eyebrows pointing north.
The target of 163 was always going to be a difficult chase on a wicket that had something in it for the bowlers, and it only got just that bit harder when Virender Sehwag nicked on through to Sanju Samson off Tim Southee in the first ball of the innings.
It was all downhill for KXIP from there, despite Murali Vijay (37, 32b, 4x4, 1x6) hitting some crisp-as-they-come shots in the Powerplay overs. While the Sehwag wicket was a jolt, Kings XI only had themselves to blame for a couple of wickets after that as well, with Wriddhiman Saha and Vijay running themselves out unnecessarily, taking on Samson, who did brilliantly to hit the wickets direct on both occasions.
Glenn Maxwell, who lit up the IPL in the early stages of the tournament last season, could not get that magic going, with Faulkner getting his compatriot courtesy a brilliant catch from Southee, who would also be involved late in the game in what will go down as one of the best catches in the history of the IPL.
After managing 51 in the first six overs, KXIP could only get 15 in their next four, which quelled the momentum completely and allowed the Royals to just put the squeeze on even more before going for the kill.
Partnerships are essential when you are chasing a big-enough score, but the highest Kings XI Punjab managed was 32, between Vijay and Saha, and even if George Bailey (24, 18b, 2x4, 1x6) tried his best towards the end, the asking rate was too much, with Southee and Karun Nair combining in stunning fashion to dismiss the KXIP skipper and just rub that little bit more salt into their wounds.
The Rajasthan Royals innings was a bit of this and that with Smith looking like a batsman on a different pitch yet again, before Hooda, on his IPL debut, and Faulkner, who would also finish with figures of 4-0-26-3 with the ball, provided the final over fireworks.
With the pitch looking almost as green as the outfield, there was going to be movement for the opening bowlers, and Sandeep Sharma and Anureet Singh (4-0-23-3), who was the outstanding bowler on the night, certainly made good use of it.
Ajinkya Rahane, after starting the innings off with a leg-bye boundary, got stuck for six balls, before a big-shot attempt proved to be his undoing. Sanju Samson, opening the innings with Rahane, also could not show his undoubted talent, with Sandeep (4-1-19-1) getting a ball to tail in and rap him on the pads.
With two wickets gone in under three overs a major recover job was necessary, and Karun Nair and Smith went about doing it only for the former to get castled by left-arm spinner Axar Patel in the final ball of the Powerplay.
While wickets kept tumbling around him, Smith was in his own "as easy as they come this run-scoring" world, making that green pitch look much like all the pitches he has played on in Australia over the past six months.
Kings XI needed to get Smith (33, 23b, 5x4) if they were to stop the Royals charge, and Bailey went to his main man -- Mitchell Johnson – for that wicket, and the fast bowler answered in style. It was not exactly a peach of a delivery that did the trick, though – not that you can get Smith out with any kind of delivery anyway – with the Royals batsman going for a shot across the line, but only managing a top edge all the way to Karanveer Singh at third man.
With Smith gone, Kings XI sensed a way into the tail-end of the Royals batting soon, with that sense only growing when Stuart Binny (13, 16b, 2x4) edged one off Johnson through to Saha. However, in came Hooda, playing fearless cricket, and the finisher extraordinaire Faulkner to take Royals to a strong total on the wicket.
Hooda played some delightful shots down the ground during his 15-ball 30 (1x4, 3x6), while Faulkner was his usual midwicket-hitting best, even taking Johnson (4-0-34-2) for two sixes and a four in one over, to ensure that 160-run mark would be crossed, a mark which proved to be well beyond Kings XI in the end.