With nine runs needed from the last over, and with five wickets in hand, nine times out of ten, you would favour the batting team. But Delhi Daredevils' captain Zaheer Khan made a bold move. When you were thinking Mohammad Shami would get the ball in the crunch last over, in came leg-spinner Amit Mishra.
And Mishra – who has three hat-tricks in his IPL career – brought all his craft and guile to bear. The first ball was a wrong 'un. There was not much the batsman Chris Woakes could do, but hit it back to the bowler. A priceless dot ball. The second ball had Woakes beaten all ends up, as he took an almighty swing at a well-flighted and sharply away-spinning leg-break. The momentum of that swing carried Woakes' feet just inches out of the crease and Rishabh Pant whipped the bails off in a flash. A wicket and what was worse for the Kolkata Knight Riders, a dot ball again. Mishra was clearly vindicating Zaheer's choice of bowler for the last over.
The new batsman Sunil Narine took a single off the next ball to make it eight needed off three balls. It was that stage of the game when you knew as a batting team that you simply needed a boundary. With pressure inching towards tipping point, Manish Pandey shuffled across the stumps and lofted Mishra straight. The ball just cleared Pat Cummins at long on. SIX! And KKR were almost there. A push towards extra cover helped the KKR batsmen to run the two runs needed for victory.
Often a shot or a delivery or indeed a piece of fielding can get associated with a player forever, haunting him, as it would haunt Chetan Sharma for having conceded that famous last-ball six to Javed Miandad in 1986, or offer fond memories, as it would to Mahendra Singh Dhoni for having won the 2011 World Cup for India with a six.
And on Monday, Pandey did a Dhoni, keeping ice cool under extreme pressure to guide his team to victory in a thrilling chase. And he hit a six when he just had to. More shades of Dhoni there. And he had got rid of the helmet in favour of a cap before going big in the last over. Even more shades of Dhoni there.
The stylish KKR batsman had first caught the eye for Royal Challengers Bangalore in the second season of the IPL in 2009, with a magnificent unbeaten 114 against the eventual winners Deccan Chargers. It was the first century by an Indian in the IPL. He has been one of the main batsmen for KKR, with aggregate scores of 401, 225 and 248 in three seasons since joining the side in 2014. He further cemented his credentials with a spectacular match-winning ton Down Under in early 2016, to prevent the ignominy of a whitewash in the ODI series against Australia.
Pandey already has 221 runs in the IPL this year, in only four matches. On Monday, he became the first batsman this season to get to 200 runs, and held the Orange Cap for sometime.
Those are the stats, but what they may not tell you in adequate measure is the assurance Pandey offers to the team - the assurance that they can still bounce back after losing three wickets for 21, as they did on Monday, the assurance that there is still somebody to hold the innings together and steer the team to shore even if Gautam Gambhir falls cheaply. Pandey's worth in this team is inestimable.
What would make KKR happy is that Yusuf Pathan finally came good in this match, hitting a 39-ball 59, with two maximums and six boundaries. He pieced together a partnership of over 100 runs with Pandey, showing more than glimpses of his Rajasthan Royals avatar. Yusuf is an impact player and if he can play these quickfire 40s and 50s on a consistent basis, it would be a tremendous boost to KKR's title hopes. But consistency has not been Yusuf's forte for KKR, and he will look to improve on that count.
Coming back to Pandey for a moment though, there was still some way to go when Yusuf got out. But till Pandey was there KKR were the favourites, and the young batsman in the end, showed exactly why.
In the celebration of Pandey and Yusuf's batting one must not forget the contributions of Narine and Nathan Coulter-Nile with the ball, which allowed KKR to restrict Delhi to a manageable total in the first place. Narine was sublime as usual, going for a mere 20 runs in his four overs and took the crucial wicket of Angelo Mathews, deceiving the Sri Lankan with a beauty and had him bowled.
The Coulter-Nile story is more endearing. The promising Australian pacer hasn't had a lot of success in the IPL and had also seen his international career getting badly affected by injury. He was released by Delhi Daredevils ahead of the player auctions in February, and what a wise strategic buy he proved out to be for KKR. On Monday, he made his former employers pay with a match-changing performance of 3/22 in four overs, though you have to feel for the bowler he replaced – Trent Boult, who has done no wrong, but has been desperately unlucky to have not been among the wickets.
Coulter-Nile got the wickets of Sam Billings, Karun Nair and the hard-hitting Rishabh Pant who was going ballistic at that time, having already flogged Umesh Yadav for 26 runs in one over. Had Pant stayed till the end of the innings KKR could well have stared at a target of 185 instead of the 169 that they eventually got. Coulter-Nile was unlucky though to have seen Chris Morris dropped twice in the same over; otherwise his figures would have looked even better.
Umesh, however, went for runs, especially with Pant getting stuck into him, but one feels he missed a trick by not changing his pace – not bowling either the slower ball outside off or the slower, loopy bouncer, as the Delhi wicket-keeper-batsman was blazing away. Chris Woakes showed the effectiveness of the slower ball bouncer, when he had Morris top edging one to third man. It is a delivery which former Australian speedster Brett Lee felt bowlers have not been bowling often enough in the IPL and Umesh would do well to use that ball more frequently, especially at the 'death'.
KKR's fielding took bit of a slide too, with three catches going down, two of them being absolute sitters and what was worse, captain Gambhir dropped one himself. If a team has to be successful in the modern day and age, it has to to well in all three departments of the game, and batting and bowling sans tight fielding would not take it too far.
Monday's match also saw KKR trying out a different opening combination, with Colin de Grandhomme coming out with Gambhir, which put to rest Narine being sent out on 'Kamikaze missions' at least for the time being. De Grandhomme seems more believable as a replacement for the injured Chris Lynn at the top of the order, but one feels, Narine may be strategically used in the tournament again. What KKR would do is to have Gambhir as the constant and have the other opening slot rotating between various players according to the situation, at least till Lynn is fit to play again.
It was another fine win for KKR, and the fact that it was a close one would have given them a good workout, which is so very necessary for going deep in a marathon tournament like the IPL. And with that they climbed to the top of the table. There are certain flaws that they would need to rectify before the competition becomes tougher, but what stands them in good stead is that KKR is firing as a team.