Sometimes you do most things right, but still end up on the losing side because your opponent is simply better on the day. Such was the case for Kolkata Knight Riders against Gujarat Lions at the Eden Gardens on Friday as the visitors' heavyweight batting line-up chased down a challenging total with relative ease.
Put into bat, KKR rustled up a good score. Sunil Narine came in to open the innings with Gautam Gambhir and went on the attack from the word go. In a throwback to the Sanath Jayasuriya-Romesh Kaluwitharana days, Narine shocked the opposition again with his unrestrained hitting and had them running helter-skelter. The second ball of the match was whipped backward of square for a boundary. Narine had wild wafts on the next two balls with his two feet cemented at the crease and then clubbed the last two balls of the over for two more boundaries.
The West Indian scored all his runs in fours and sixes as he raced to 42 off 17, before perishing in the fourth over, having played one shot too many. All that Narine connected went for boundaries and a large part of the rest he played and missed. That was the story of Narine's innings really. It was either a hit or a miss; nothing in between. And it worked for Kolkata, though they would have loved if he could have carried on for a little longer. But you really have to say, Kolkata got more than what they had bargained for in the few occasions that they had gambled with using Narine as an out-and-out 'pinch hitter' at the top of the order.
Comparisons with Jayasuriya and Kaluwitharana have become inevitable. The inimitable Sri Lankan duo had revolutionised the way batting is done, especially in limited overs cricket while the field restrictions are on, in the mid and late 1990s, tearing into bowlers, throwing the word 'caution' straight out of the window and going over the in-field with gay abandon.
Narine's promotion in the batting order has been fuelled by the same objective - to get as many runs as possible in the first six overs, till the time you have only two fielders outside the 30-yard circle, and hence dent the opposition at the start of the innings itself. The comparison with Jayasuriya and Kaluwitharana ends there though, as the two Sri Lankans were far more accomplished batsmen, who could carry the blitzkrieg for a much longer time. But what can't be denied is that Narine's batting has had the impact that the team management had envisioned it to have.
What the whirlwind Narine innings ensured was that the batsmen coming after him could play normal cricket and yet maintain a healthy run rate, without having to take too many risks. And that's what Gambhir and Robin Uthappa sought to do. Uthappa had struck form with a 39-ball 68 against Sunrisers Hyderabad a few days back and came good on Friday again with 72 off 48 balls, stringing together a 69-run partnership with Gambhir (33 off 28 balls).
However, Kolkata would rue the fact that they could not push on to a bigger score than the 187 they eventually got, especially considering the start Narine provided them. Having got to 96/1 at the halfway stage, 200 looked very much on the cards, but the KKR batsmen failed to accelerate in adequate measure. Credit must also be given to the Gujarat bowlers to have pulled things back in the middle overs in the KKR innings, when James Faulkner, Basil Thampi and Ravindra Jadeja sent down some pretty useful overs.
A lot has been said about Gujarat being a batting-heavy side and the weakness in their bowling hurting them, but on Friday, the Gujarat bowlers did the crucial job of not letting Kolkata run away with the game. Thampi was impressive again, and the ball to get rid of the in-form Manish Pandey was an absolute Jaffa. A yorker to which the batsman had no answer. GL's celebrated all-rounder Dwayne Bravo feels Thampi would soon play for India, and he has a point there.
Once KKR were restricted to a manageable total, the big guns in the Gujarat batting line-up took charge of the match. First Aaron Finch (31 off 15 balls) and Brendon McCullum (33 off 17 balls), put together a 42-run partnership and siezed the early initiative and then Suresh Raina played a trademark 46-ball 84 to put paid to any hopes KKR's hopes of making a comeback.
All the KKR bowlers went for runs, with the most economical being Kuldeep Yadav at 8.25 runs an over. Narine could not recreate his exploits with the bat with the ball as well, though the latter is his primary calling. He is not the bowler he was in 2012 when he ended up as the Player of the Tournament. It was an edition of the Indian Premier League (IPL) when nobody read him. Since then, he had undergone a correction in his action, which has impacted his ability to impart fizz to his deliveries as earlier and also generally, batsmen have been able to deconstruct his bowling with a fair degree of success.
Kuldeep was the pick of the Kolkata bowlers and even got two wickets, including that of Raina. It was a good ploy by Gambhir to hold him back for the middle overs in order to choke the run flow when Gujarat would have needed to keep the runs flowing. Kuldeep was introduced only in the 10th over and started well, conceding just three runs in his first over. Similarly, lead pacer Umesh Yadav was also held back and brought on in the 13th over. Umesh was the next best bowler on the night, after Kuldeep, for Kolkata, going at a rate only a shade higher than the Chinaman.
Shakib Al Hasan, on the other hand, who was drafted into the side for this match, in place of Colin de Grandhomme, looked rusty and had a forgettable outing, giving away 31 runs in his three overs. It was perhaps not totally out of place to have Shakib in place of de Grandhomme, who would have come with the same skill set as Chris Woakes. However, on a changed Eden Gardens pitch, which is not as conducive to slow bowling as it used to be, playing three spinners may not be the ideal option.
It was, therefore, a match which Gujarat won by the dint of their abilities, the same way KKR won the last time they met. Friday's match was bit of a mirror image of the earlier match in the tournament between these two teams. Gujarat playing at home and batting first, had scored 183 and KKR knocked off those runs by virtue of some aggressive batting by Chris Lynn and Gambhir. KKR, playing at home, this time around, batted first and got a similar score, which the Gujarat batsmen overhauled.
Kolkata have to accept that it was not their day, take the loss on the chin and move on. "I would have taken four (wins) out of six games if you had asked me at the start of the tournament," skipper Gambhir said after the match. The IPL is a marathon competition and there is still a long way to go. KKR should take heart from the fact that they have been one of the top performers so far and should look to iron out the creases and aim for the long haul.