Kolkata Knight Riders had, in the last two editions of the Indian Premier League (IPL), played like champions for most part, only to slip up at the business end of the tournament. In 2015, they found themselves at the top of the table, but miraculously missed a play-off berth after losing two matches on the trot. In 2016, they climbed to the pole position again on the back of four wins from six away matches, and needed just two wins from their last five matches to seal a spot in the play-offs. But they huffed and puffed and made it difficult for themselves, leaving it as late as their last group match and scraped through to the knockouts.
This year, it doesn't seem to be any different. KKR had hardly gone out of the top two places for the entirety of the tournament, and one would have expected them to have qualified for the play-offs hands down and with a lot to spare, but old habits die hard. The Kolkata franchise, which had been in sublime form for most of the tournament is facing a deceleration of sorts at the fag end again.
On Tuesday, Kolkata Knight Riders lost by 14 runs to Kings XI Punjab, a team that they had almost always got the better of. Before the match on Tuesday evening, KKR had a 14-6 head-to-head lead in the IPL against KXIP and were unbeaten for a record eight matches against them. So KXIP was a team that KKR would have fancied beating, and putting to rest all doubts over their qualification for the play-offs. But the Punjab bowlers ensured that was not to be and now with this loss, Kolkata have lost three of their last four matches.
For a team that had lost only twice in their first nine outings, this late dip in form and fortune has put them in a pickle. They have 16 points from 13 matches, and in danger of being overtaken by Rising Pune Supergiant and Sunrisers Hyderabad. Punjab are on 12 points with two matches remaining and can match Kolkata's tally with two wins in their next two matches, and if they win those two matches by handsome margins, they can pip Kolkata for a play-off berth.
So as things stand, KKR would have to beat Mumbai Indians in their last match to make themselves safe. MI however, have been a team that KKR have always found difficult to beat, managing to put it past them on only five occasions out of 19. Kolkata blew a golden opportunity in the first leg this year, going down by six wickets at the Wankhede, when they should have won it at a canter instead.
Therefore, things won't be one bit easy for KKR and even if they upset MI and gather 18 points, a top-two finish in the group stage would not be guaranteed. It would depend upon how Pune fare in their remaining matches. To remind the readers, the top two teams at the end of the league stage, would have two shots at qualification for the final and hence it is something that is coveted by all teams.
Let's look at what ailed KKR at Mohali on Tuesday evening. After getting Manan Vohra, Martin Guptill and Shaun Marsh relatively cheaply, KKR were hurt by Kolkata alumnus Wriddhiman Saha and rival captain Glenn Maxwell. The duo added 71 runs for the fourth wicket and gave the Punjab innings the vitality that it was lacking. Maxwell was particularly severe on the bowlers, smashing 44 runs off 25 balls, including four hits over the boundary. The 167 that KXIP got looked a bit less, given the mayhem Sunil Narine, Chris Lynn and company were capable of causing.
Narine and Chris Woakes were the pick of the bowlers, but what hurt KKR was that their big weapon, Chinaman Kuldeep Yadav, who returned to the side in place of an unimpressive Piyush Chawla, went for runs (though he got rid of both Saha and Maxwell).
Narine and Lynn started in usual slam bang fashion, from where they left off against Royal Challengers Bangalore. Narine smashed the first two balls of the innings for boundaries and Lynn followed up with a boundary of his own. Twelve runs from the first over and KKR were underway. The next two overs produced nine and ten runs respectively.
Mohit Sharma came in to bowl the fourth over and was dismissed for two consecutive fours by Narine. But Mohit had the last laugh, as he bowled a well-disguised slower ball and the Kolkata 'pinch-hitter' was early on the shot, got an inside edge and had his stumps rattled. A big blow for KKR, but they still had a lot of quality batting to come. And what was in their favour was that Lynn was still out in the middle.
Captain Gautam Gambhir joined Lynn at the crease, but got stuck. His eight off 18 balls is sure to have brought back the unhappy memories of Yuvraj Singh's painfully slow innings in the 2014 World T20 final. Gambhir's vigil at the crease sapped the KKR innings of momentum. Robin Uthappa came in at the fall of Gambhir's wicket, but was sent back for a first-ball duck. Manish Pandey, came in and he too got stuck, slouching his way to 18 at much less than a run-a-ball. There was only that much which Lynn could do. And when Lynn fell in the 18th over, KKR's chances were all but snuffed out.
Yusuf Pathan, had he been his old self, could still have carried KKR home. But he is no longer the batsman who could smash a hundred off 37 balls, as he did against Mumbai Indians in 2010 in Rajasthan Royals colours. He contributed precious little as he has done for quite some time now.
However, while the sluggishness of the KKR innings can be one explanation for their loss last evening, the corollary has to be some expert bowling by Punjab. Mohit Sharma, Sandeep Sharma, Rahul Tewatia are not big names in the international circuit, but they bowled with a lot of resolve, and to a plan and bowled within themselves, choking the mighty KKR batting line-up.
The Punjab pacers varied their pace well and used the yorker and knuckle ball to great effect. The knuckle ball is an import from baseball that has caught the imagination of the cricket world lately. Bowled with the knuckles or fingertips on the ball and released with a stiff wrist, the idea is to impart almost zero rotation on the ball. The ball, as a result, moves at a slow pace and has an unpredictable trajectory, floating and dying on the batsman.
The KKR batsmen kept on throwing their bats, but failed to get the bowlers away. There were balls hit in the air, but instead of going over the ropes as envisaged, they either went on a bounce to the fielders or went to hand. The KKR batsmen looked helpless. Mohit put up a Man of the Match performance with figures of 2/24 in his three overs, and was well supported by Sandeep (0/31 from four overs) and left-arm orthodox bowler Axar Patel (0/28 from four overs). Special mention has also to be made of leg break bowler Tewatia, who removed Gambhir and Uthappa and gave away only 18 runs from his four overs. Add to that the handy runs he got, he could well have been a choice for Man of the Match as well.
After this sobering loss, all that KKR can do now is go out and put the best foot forward against Mumbai Indians and hope for some luck. One thing that could be in their favour is that they would be playing the match at their fortress, the Eden Gardens. However, when you consider Mumbai captain Rohit Sharma's record at the iconic stadium, Kolkata don't have much of an advantage, do they?