A thorough hiding. That is what Kolkata Knight Riders inflicted on Gujarat Lions in the third match of the Indian Premier League (IPL) 2017 on Friday. Chris Lynn and Gautam Gambhir went out on a lion hunt and made a mockery of the 184-run target, which nine times out of ten, would have been an extremely challenging one, and took their team home with plenty to spare, both in terms of overs and wickets, and obliterating many records in the process.
The Gujarat franchise, playing at home, did not do too many things wrong. In fact, they started in right earnest, with openers Jason Roy and Brendon McCullum giving them a brisk start, before captain Suresh Raina and Dinesh Karthik took over. Raina, who had lost out on a BCCI central contract and fallen out of favour with the national selectors, would have set great store by a successful IPL 2017. He was the beneficiary of some good fortune in his innings, having been dropped twice and also seeing many of his lofted shots falling in no man's land. But what counts in the end is that he made his way to 68 off 51 balls and was one of the main inspirations behind the creditable 183 that Gujarat put on board.
He was ably supported by Karthik, who started from where he left off in the Deodhar Trophy final, and plundered 47 runs off 25 balls, with six hits to the fence and two over it.
At the halfway stage, you would have been inclined to believe that the match was on the balance. Gujarat clearly had momentum on their side going into the break, and KKR had their task cut out, one thought. Their talisman and captain Gambhir is certainly not getting any younger and could he still be the dominant batsman that he used to be? Could Robin Uthappa still hit big blows with regularity? Could Suryakumar Yadav and Manish Pandey play their script of being the pillars in the middle order? Could Yusuf Pathan rediscover some of his brawn? The in-form Chris Lynn, one expected, would have had to play a significant role. People were eager to see how KKR responded to Gujarat's challenge.
Lynn walked in alongside Gambhir at the resumption of play, which may have surprised a few people. The choice of Lynn as Gambhir's opening partner, instead of the tried and tested Uthappa showed that the KKR team management were willing to be flexible and open to enrichments even if it was at the cost of stability, and also told us that the Australian dasher will be used to 'shock and awe' oppositions early on, with a mandate to go hammer and tongs from ball one if need to, so that by the time the opposition are just getting in the groove, they are already behind in the race. It also showed how vital a cog Lynn is to the Kolkata outfit.
Lynn and Gambhir soon made their intent known. The KKR duo launched a vicious attack, and no bowler was spared. There were raining sixes and fours as the cheerleaders were having a busy day in office. The Gujarat bowlers, on the other hand, didn't know what hit them. They would have belived that they could make a feast of the contest after their batsmen gave them a lot to play with, but to have walked into such ferocious attack left them utterly deflated. As the Kolkata openers were teeing off, the television camera focused on Gujarat captain Raina, and his face told a thousand tales. Raina looked helpless in the face of such a beating. It was almost as if was giving up.
What Gujarat clearly lacked in this match was bowling quality. They are a batting-heavy side and against KKR, all the four foreigners that they could choose in the starting line-up were primarily batsmen. It was left to an average Indian bowling contingent to contend with Lynn, Gambhir and Co. Gujarat's weakness in bowling showed up on Friday, and one fears it would continue to be a thorn in their flesh all through the tournament. The Rajkot franchise would desperately want Ravindra Jadeja and Dwayne Bravo to return to the side as quickly as possible and would do well to mobilise the services of Australian pacer James Faulkner.
But even as Gujarat's meek bowling made the job of the KKR batsmen easier, nothing can be taken away from the efforts of Lynn and Gambhir. Unlike Gujarat, KKR is a very balanced unit with quality in every department and a good mixture of Indian and foreign players. And they have an X-factor in Lynn. The 26-year-old comes to the IPL on the back of some strong performances in domestic cricket in Australia and promises to offer KKR the same leverage that Yusuf Pathan gave to the Rajasthan Royals in the first three seasons. Pathan may not have been as successful with KKR, but if Lynn can hold his form he can be more than a suitable replacement.
Gambhir heaped praise on Lynn after the match and indicated the enormous faith the team management had in Lynn. "You can't ask for more from Lynny (Lynn). He took a lot of pressure off me. We are going to give Lynny a longer run. Hopefully he can keep smacking it. We all know how dangerous he is, and hopefully we can play around him," Gambhir said.
Lynn-Gambhir blitzkrieg ensured that no other KKR batsman was required to spend his energy, making it the highest target chased by a team without losing a wicket in the history of T20 cricket. It was the highest opening stand in the IPL, beating the 167 between the Royal Challengers Bangalore (RCB) pair of Chris Gayle and Tillakaratne Dilshan against Pune Warriors India in 2013. It was also the highest partnership ever for KKR for any wicket in the IPL. One can well imagine the havoc that Lynn and Gambhir wreaked.
While most of the attention in this match is bound to be centred around the Lynn-Gambhir partnership, KKR would also be buoyed by the bowling of Kuldeep Yadav. Test match success on debut and against a team like Australia have made confidence a world of good and made him decidedly mature as a bowler. The delivery to get rid of Brendon McCullum, who was just starting to look dangerous was a beauty. It came into the right-hander after pitching and trapped McCullum in front of the stumps. His figures of 2/25 in four overs, at an economy of just a shade more than six runs per over was game-changing in the context of Friday's match.
The Kolkata francise, however, would be worried about the bowling of Sunil Narine, especially. Though this was only the first match of a marathon tournament, it is a fact that Narine is no longer the mystery bowler that he used to be, especially after having had to remodel his action, and it may be prudent to replace him with Shakib Al Hasan if his performances stay as modest as it was on Friday. What selecting Shakib would do is that it would give KKR another batting option and a quality one at that. Trent Boult, on whom KKR spent big money in the February auction, was also below par.
But what would rankle captain Gambhir the most is some lacklustre effort on the field. Dropping a top batsman like Raina twice is an unpardonable offence and can hurt them in crunch situations. Gambhir minced no words while refering to his team's fielding on the night. "The dropped catches were there - but we need to be proactive in the fielding. We have just one day to recover and we will have to bring our A game against Mumbai in Mumbai," the KKR skipper said.
The sloppiness on the field may have moderated the euphoria of the win to an extent, but overall it was a great day in the office for KKR. They look every bit a potential champion. They have made almost the perfect start and now need to build from here. They play Mumbai Indians at the Wankhede stadium next. KKR may not have had the greatest of records against Mumbai, but the good thing for them is that they would be catching the Mumbai outfit when they are traditionally at their most vulnerable — at the start of the tournament. So Gambhir and Co will fancy their chances at the Wankhede on Sunday and if they do manage to put it past Rohit Sharma's men, it will be two away wins on the trot for KKR. What a start to the campaign that would be!