Mahela Jayawardene has led Kochi from the front in this IPL 4 © AFP
Mahela Jayawardene has led Kochi from the front in this IPL 4 © AFP

 

By Jamie Alter

 

Perhaps the only endearing aspect of the fourth season of the Indian Premier League (IPL) – which has been decidedly flat and thrown up few memorable matches – has been to watch how Mahela Jayawardene has led the most low-key of IPL franchises, Kochi Tuskers Kerala (KTK). It hasn’t evoked the thrill of Shane Warne inspiring Rajasthan Royals or carried the grit of Anil Kumble leading Royal Challengers Bangalore in 2009, but Jayawardene and KTK’s journey have had some poignant moments.

 

After an indifferent start to the season, a Jayawardene-inspired KTK are now gunning for a spot in the final four. For the southern-most team in the league, the easy-going yet calculated captaincy of Jayawardene has resulted in a well-rounded and harmonious atmosphere in a side that has the least star power of all ten teams.

 

What has caught the eye is how desperate the senior players are to win, and how that has eased the pressure on the younger and more inexperienced domestic players. Jayawardene, Brad Hodge and Brendon McCullum have each spoken about the determination to win and the need to go out and prove the merits of the IPL’s underdog side, and this has been manifested in part in those with no international exposure. In the middle, the way Ravindra Jadeja has played in an attempt to remind the Indian selectors of his worth has acted as cement between the experienced names above him and the rawer talent below.

 

Against Kolkata Knight Riders, KTK were indebted to the senior figures of Jayawardene and Hodge and the low-key Raiphi Gomez and Prasanth Parameswaran. Jayawardene’s decision to move down into the middle order has been a calculated one; he knows KTK’s middle-order needs stability and he feels he is the man to offer that. On Thursday evening he played a typical Jayawardene innings – easy on the eye while not entirely fluent, and well-paced.

 

On a pitch that had something for the bowlers, Jayawardene opted to push the ball around for singles and not for indulgence. He was aware of what deliveries to attack; when Sarabjit Ladda overstepped, Jayawardene creamed the free hit over extra cover for six. When Yusuf Pathan floated it wide, Jayawardene repeated the inside-out stroke. When Rajat Bhatia tried the slower ball, Jayawardene picked it and swept it for six.

 

Hodge, the only other senior player left, batted like a man possessed. In the final over of KTK’s innings, bowled by Brett Lee, Hodge imposed himself with two fours and two sixes. It showed Hodge’s desire to win. Hodge has a long felt he has a point to prove to the Australian selectors if not the world at large, and his brutal hitting at the end showed his immense value to this side. It was just the touch KTK needed on an innings that had drifted along without much purpose, bar Jayawardene’s attempt to solidify.

 

If the batting was all about two experienced international men, the bowling evolved around two local boys. On an evening in which experienced international pace spearheads like Brett Lee, Shantakumaran Sreesanth and RP Singh were collared for runs, the unassuming duo of Raiphi Gomez and Prasanth Parameswaran kept their composure to help KTK win.

 

Throughout the chase, Jayawardene was involved. He made frequent changes to the bowling attack and in the field, seeking to apply pressure as Eoin Morgan and Jacques Kallis formed a platform. Crucially, he backed his youngsters, even those who could have been his weakest link.

 

Back on April 9, when KTK opened their campaign against Royal Challengers Bangalore, Jayawardene’s decision to give Gomez an over the 18th over proved a disastrous move, as AB de Villiers collected three sixes to hasten victory. Against KKR, Jayawardene realized that taking pace off the ball was the way to go, and so tossed the ball to Gomez. The result was a double-wicket maiden that snapped KKR’s momentum and set KTK on the path to victory.

 

Throughout the tournament Jayawardene has invested in Gomez and on Thursday the medium-pacer vindicated that faith. Like Jayawardene when batting, Gomez didn’t try too much, perhaps because he doesn’t have too much. He kept it simple, bowling a stump-to-stump line. Subtle changes in length were all he experimented with. Kallis was cleaned up by a leg-cutter, Gautam Gambhir chased width and was help by – whom else? – but Jayawardene at cover.

 

Jayawardene also backed Parameswaran to bowl the 16th and 18th overs, when the asking rate was escalating and Morgan and Yusuf were looking to tee off. Those two overs cost just 13, with Parameswaran conceding only one boundary. Like Gomez, though owning more pace, Parameswaran showcased his skill and temperament. He operated with a full length outside off stump, encouraging the batsmen to chase. He didn’t get a wicket, but figures of 4-0-21-0 were excellent returns for a bowler with plenty of heart.

 

It is such performances from veterans and rookies that can carry KTK up the table. If Jayawardene can continue to inspire with the bat and in the field, KTK will be poised to slay a few more giants as they look to enter the final four. It would give an otherwise lifeless tournament some soul.

 

(Jamie Alter is a freelance cricket writer, having worked at ESPNcricinfo and All Sports Magazine. He is the author of two books, The History of World Cup Cricket and Field of Dreams: The Story of the Dr. DY Patil Sports Stadium. His twitter feed is @jamie_alter)