New Delhi: After all that has unfolded since May 16, Rajasthan Royals needed something to put a smile on their faces. Ever since the shocking news broke in the early hours of last Thursday that three Rajasthan players had been arrested on allegations of spot-fixing in IPL 6, Rajasthan's rosy campaign had turned sour. Off the field, the team put up stern faces and chose not to comment on the controversies; on the field, they lost their final two league matches to miss out on a place for the first Qualifier. That meant that played Sunrisers Hyderabad in the Eliminator in the season's first knock-out match.
So did they end up smiling? Yes, and how. They didn't just smile, they roared. They cleared the dugout. They whooped, they embraced, they were unabashedly boyish in celebrating a nerve-wracking four-wicket win over Hyderabad at the Feroz Shah Kotla on Wednesday night. And the man in the middle was none other than Brad Hodge, Twenty20 cricket's highest run-getter and a gritty, tough-as-nails Australian competitor.
Chasing 133, Rajasthan had slumped to 57 for 5 by the halfway stage of their innings. Rahul Dravid, Ajinkya Rahane and Shane Watson were all back in the dugout, the mood in the dugout was increasingly glum. As the screws tightened, however, Hodge showed why he's been such a giant in this format.
A lesser man might have lost his nerve, but Hodge thrives in these situations. Coolly, he began with two off-side singles to get the juices flowing and the bifurcated the gap between cover and point for a four off Sammy. It was a tap, the ball sped away. Sammy grimaced; but he had no clue about what was in store later.
Cameron White, Hyderabad's captain, called back leg spinner Karan Sharma to bowl the 14th over and Hodge sensed an opportunity. He didn't let the junior most member of the opposition settle in his biggest T20 match, swatting two sixes and a four. With those three crisp shots the momentum had turned back Rajasthan's way. Now they needed 42 from 36 balls. White persisted with legspin for a third consecutive over and Hodge sliced Amit Mishra over long-off for his third six in five balls.
Hodge did not find the boundary for the next 14 balls, but when he did the match was sealed in stunning fashion. Sammy had bowled really well, mixing his pace and slipping in some deceptive cutters, but to Hodge - with ten needed off six balls - he banged one in short. In a flash, Hodge rocketed a pull for a massive six over square leg. Sammy craned his neck, cursed. He went back to his run-up, Hodge scratched at this crease and surveyed the field, his eyes turning Clint Eastwood gunslinger cold. Hodge's team-mates were on the edge of their seats, at the nonstriker's end a fellow Australian, James Faulkner, looked up to the sky.
Sammy ran in, lithe and Caribbean athletic, and bowled a fuller ball. Hodge, with a clean swing, cracked it over long-on for six. As soon as he got bat on Sammy on ball, Hodge knew he had nailed the match. He removed his helmet and charged away from the pitch, impersonating Sammy's rock-the-baby celebration after he gets a wicket. Elsewhere, a stone-faced Sammy sat along on a bench staring out onto the field. The contrast of emotions was palpable. Sammy had been ice cool all through the match until he erred in length off the final two deliveries.
When you consider Hodge had not scored a fifty all season, pulling out a nerveless innings like this was massive. It also points to Rajasthan's depth in batting, and how their tactic of holding back Hodge paid dividends.
After the match, Hodge was typically laid-back in assessing his performance. "I was looking to get the Chris Gayle distance than the Hodge distance in the 19th over," he joked. "Its been quite a frustrating week last and so it was a good thing to dust it off and play cricket. There's been a lot of celebration going on in the tournament and I was just trying to show that I have got children too with my celebration."
After keeping his emotions in check, Hodge momentarily allowed himself to thaw, but trust him to lock himself into ice mode the next time he comes out to bat.