CHENNAI: Slender frame, an uncluttered technique and a smooth bat-swing. When you get a first glance of Ruturaj Gaikwad's batting, these are the characteristics that immediately stand out. His attributes may suggest that he is ideally suited to the longer version — he interestingly averages only 38.54 in first-class cricket — but it is in the shorter versions that he is sparkling with relish.
His latest display was a century of the highest quality against Rajasthan Royals on Saturday. On an Abu Dhabi surface where runs have been hard to come by this season, Gaikwad's effortless, unbeaten 101 propelled Chennai to a total of 189/4 — the highest total batting first in the UAE in IPL 2021. Gaikwad's brilliance was met with an equally formidable riposte from the Rajasthan batters as they cruised to the target with seven wickets in hand and 2.3 overs to spare. The bulk of the work was done by two players with starkly contrasting approaches: Yashasvi Jaiswal (50 off 21 balls) and Shivam Dube (64 not out off 42 balls). While Jaiswal's languid strokeplay provided the foundation as he stitched together a 77-run opening stand with Evin Lewis in just 5.2 overs, Dube's brute force gave the finishing touches. The win ensured that Rajasthan stayed alive in the race for the play-offs.
It also overshadowed a fine knock by Gaikwad that can be summed up as an innings of two halves. His half-century came off 43 balls before a stunning acceleration saw him plunder the next 51 runs in just 17 deliveries. CSK themselves were ambling along at 83/2 after 12 overs, but the last eight overs yielded a whopping 106 runs.
The 24-year-old has been overlooked for India's T20 World Cup campaign of course, but there are few batters timing the ball better than the man from Pune at the moment. He did feature in two T20Is for India on the tour of Sri Lanka in July but was unable to make much of an impression on sluggish surfaces in Colombo. While his chance may have gone as far as the World Cup is concerned (the selectors have time till October 10 to make changes), it is unlikely to be too long before he is back donning an India jersey. India are playing a three-match T20I series against New Zealand from November 17 onwards, three days after the T20 WC concludes in Dubai, and Gaikwad should be getting another opportunity to showcase his wares as part of a second-string XI.
The evening kicked off with a sumptuous off-drive from Gaikwad's willow, and there were many strokes of that jaw-dropping calibre through the night. While the opener doesn't always blaze away in the first six overs, his ability to swiftly shift gears has made him a batter to fear. On Saturday, he exhibited that attribute yet again.
The exact moment when Gaikwad chose to stamp his imprint arrived when leggie Rahul Tewatia was brought back into the attack to complete his quota of overs. CSK were 100/2 in 14 overs at that stage and primed for a total in the range of 160. But a remarkable onslaught ensued, as Gaikwad chose to greet the leggie with two booming maximums.
With the robust presence of Ravindra Jadeja for company, there was no respite for the Rajasthan bowlers thereon. In the end, it turned into a boundary-hitting competition between the two batters, with Jadeja's farming of the strike in the final over threatening to rob Gaikwad of a well-deserved ton. But Gaikwad's turn eventually came off the final delivery of the innings and another towering six into the grass banks gave the opener his moment under the night sky.
Brief scores: Chennai Super Kings 189/4 in 20 ovs (Gaikwad 101*, Jadeja 32*) lost to Rajasthan Royals 190/3 in 17.3 ovs (Dube 64 n.o, Jaiswal 50; Thakur 2/30).