IPL 2020, already electrifying, sent a cricket-mad, cricket-starved country into a frenzy last weekend. There were two cracking matches on Saturday; as it turned out, they were the appetizer before the main course on Super Sunday.
Two games, two ties, six Super Overs. That’s right, six. For the first time in T20 history, a second Super Over was required to settle the stalemate between Kings XI Punjab and Mumbai Indians. A few hours earlier, Kolkata Knight Riders had quelled Sunrisers Hyderabad’s feisty challenge in extra-time. On another night, that would have been the headline-grabber. But it became a mere footnote, as the second game spilled over to a second day.
The Super Over is quintessentially Twenty20, though the original blueprint used a bowl-out to arrive at a conclusion. The bowl-out involved five players from each side bowling at untenanted stumps, a route India took to defeat Pakistan in their league clash in the 2007 World T20. An impersonal, unappealing way to decide the winner, it soon made way for the Super Over.
As a spectacle, the Super Over is without peer. It encapsulates the drama and the theatre of the three-and-a-half preceding hours into one 15-minute loop of tension and intrigue. Super Overs call for great nervelessness, outcomes charted through one moment of indecision, one stuttering fumble, one pressure-induced error.
That it comes at the conclusion of a contest that has already left the protagonists drained – how can they not be when the original non-result is derived off the final delivery? – after the undulating ebbs and flows unique to this version. The team batting first has stowed away its gear, its top order mentally switched off from a batting standpoint. Towards the closing stages of regulation play, with a tie looming as a possibility, a million thoughts run through the minds of those fielding but are expected to bat in a quarter of an hour. And if, among those penciled in for Super Over duties is the captain of the fielding side, like Rohit Sharma was against KXIP, one can only imagine what he must have been going through.
The Super Over is no licence for recklessness and daredevilry. It demands a judicious balance between all-out aggression and substantial prudence. The loss of two wickets is the equivalent of a side losing 10 in normal play, so batsmen can’t just close their eyes and tee off even though they have only six deliveries at their disposal. The rules of the Super Over are such that the team that has chased in regulation time must bat first in the shoot-out. Often, the same bowler who has closed out the match in the 20th over of the second innings is asked to dig deep and summon additional reserves of mental strength and impeccable execution of plans. Even for the strongest, fittest, calmest and most sorted, that’s like trying to climb a steep incline with a 100-pound backpack strapped on.
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And yet, there are heroic performances, such as Mohammed Shami’s when he had only six runs to defend in the first Super Over, against Rohit and Quinton de Kock. At the best of times, the yorker is not only the hardest delivery to master for a pace bowler, it also places the greatest demand on the body as a whole and the core and the abdomen specifically. To get one yorker bang on is exceptional. To do so six times in a row, knowing that the margin for error is no more than a couple of centimetres, the literal difference between victory and defeat, is nearly as superhuman, but not always as acknowledged as, say, the batting pyrotechnics of the irrepressible AB de Villiers.
Those watching from the stands (in happier times in the past and hopefully at some stage in future), those partaking of the entertainment on live television, and those calling the game find themselves suspended in a state of breathless anticipation, but what of the players themselves? Do they actually enjoy being part of Super Overs? Will KXIP captain KL Rahul not sleep better if he knows he doesn’t have to ride the highs and the lows that his inconsiderate teammates have subjected him to more than once already this season?
Political correctness has inevitably prevented several of them from speaking their mind. Some of them don’t mind the hustle and bustle of this eliminator, so long as it isn’t an everyday occurrence. Others would love for a tie to remain a tie in the league stage at least. While a tie can’t replicate the sweet taste of success, it doesn’t leave behind the bitterness of a gut-wrenching loss in the lottery that the Super Over can be, or the players gasping physically and mentally if the next fixture is only 48 hours away.
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After all, it’s not as if matches in football’s most prestigious domestic leagues worldwide are decided on penalty shootouts in the event of a draw. The tie-breaker is reserved for knockout games which, evidently, require a winner. If one extrapolates that argument to Twenty20 cricket, there is room to debate if, for the Super Over to remain super and not become ordinary because of the frequency with which it might come to be used, it should only be requisitioned during the playoff stage.
Already, ties in 50-over cricket are being broken through the Super Over even in bilateral series, but with a few tweaks following the fiasco at Lord’s last summer when England lifted the World Cup despite not defeating New Zealand in the final. Traditionalists will hope at least Test cricket, despite the arrival of the pink ball and day-night games, is spared the Super Over treatment. Not fair if, after five days of intense action, the very rare tie (there have only been two in 2,393 Tests) is broken by two overs whose requirements are diametrically opposite to those of the longest version.