The Kolkata Knight Riders outfit, under captain Gautam Gambhir, is simply looking top draw in this season of the Indian Premier League (IPL). They have well and truly made winning a habit and, on Friday, proved to be more than a match for their rivals, the Delhi Daredevils.
The Daredevils came to Eden Gardens hoping to exact revenge for their last-over loss to the purple brigade last week and started in right earnest, but were thoroughly beaten in the end. Kolkata overhauled the modest 161-run target with 22 balls to spare, and that's is a considerable margin in T20 cricket. The win took them one step closer to securing a play-off spot.
Delhi, on the other hand, stayed rooted to the last position; a place where they don't really belong given the team they have. In fact, there is not a huge difference in quality between the Knight Riders and the Daredevils. Delhi's pace bowling arsenal, comprising Pat Cummins, Kagiso Rabada, Chris Morris and captain Zaheer Khan is right up there with the best in the competition.
They also have the wily leg-spinner Amit Mishra in their ranks, and possess some very talented Indian batsmen in Sanju Samson, Rishabh Pant, Shreyas Iyer and Karun Nair. Unfortunately, though, the results have not gone their way as they have failed to wrest the initiative at key moments. And therein lies their difference with Kolkata.
One of the biggest plus points for Kolkata, apart from their squad depth, is their resilience, which makes them a class apart. They are not easily perturbed and know how to fight back when pushed to a corner. And Friday was no different. The Delhi openers, Samson and Nair, started strong, racing to 41/0 in the first four overs, with a flurry of boundaries.
But then Sunil Narine and company pulled things back and, at one stage, no boundary was scored off the bat for 8.4 overs. This period of play, in which Kolkata applied the choke hold, proved to be crucial.
Samson broke the shackles with a six off Kuldeep Yadav to start the 12th over, taking him to his fifty. Iyer joined in and there was another spurt in the Delhi innings, with a few boundaries coming thick and fast.
But the visitors were badly hurt by three wickets in quick succession, with Samson, Pant and Iyer falling in the space of 12 balls. It reduced Delhi from a robust 123/1 in the 14th over to 140/4 in the 16th over. Corey Anderson would have been dismissed in the next over as well but was dropped twice by Kuldeep off his own bowling, though the New Zealander did not last long thereafter and was run out.
With wickets falling one after another, brakes were applied on the flow of runs and Delhi ended up with a score which was far less than one that could have challenged the formidable Kolkata batting line-up.
The Delhi innings can, therefore, be looked at in terms of four stages – an early assault for four-odd overs, a longish period of thaw, another brief spurt and then another period of deceleration. Narine, Kuldeep and Chris Woakes conceded less than seven runs per over, while Nathan Coulter-Nile returned to the side after rest, with fantastic figures of 3/34.
What the Kolkata bowlers also did well in this match was to keep the big-hitting Morris quiet. The South African, if one would remember, had smashed 38 runs off a mere nine balls against Pune in the early stages of the tournament; but against Kolkata on Friday, he simply could not get the ball away for runs, falling in the end for 11 off 10 balls.
Then it was the turn of the Kolkata batsmen to take control. The experiment of opening with Narine did not come off again, but that was not surprising, and nobody expected it to be a hit every time. But that wicket brought Gambhir and Robin Uthappa to the crease, and as they did against the Rising Pune Supergiant in the previous match, the duo snuffed out all hopes of the opposition.
Uthappa benefited from a horrendous mix-up between the Delhi fielders when he hit Kagiso Rabada miles into the air and Samson and Mishra converged to take the catch, but neither went for it, thinking the other would and the ball dropped right in between them. It was a comical blunder. Uthappa had offered a sitter in the previous match against Pune too but was dropped.
And as he did against Pune, he took advantage and tore the bowling to shreds. Uthappa's innings was studded with five fours and four sixes, as he raced to his fifty off 24 balls, two deliveries faster than against Pune. He added over 100 runs with Gambhir, as he did against Pune. It felt almost like watching a replay of the match against Pune.
When Uthappa finally got out for a 33-ball 59, Kolkata was well and truly in the driver's seat, needing 44 runs off 46 balls. Gambhir ensured that there were no mishaps, steering his side home with the skill of an experienced navigator. He brought up his fifty and 6,000 T20 runs in the process and stayed unbeaten on 71 off 52 balls.
Gambhir was rightly adjudged as the Man of the Match. If there is anything called leading by example, the Kolkata captain has to be its greatest exponent and ambassador. His captaincy and batting have been top class in the tournament and is another X-factor and reason for the team doing so well, going beyond the average.
Kolkata would be happy that they are not just winning, but winning comfortably. And on the occasions when they have had to exert themselves in tight situations, they have done it to perfection. The match against Mumbai Indians at the Wankhede was probably an outlier, for they let that match slip, metaphorically and literally, through their fingers, and against Gujarat Lions at the Eden Gardens, they were, for once, second best. But other than that, their performances in IPL this season have looked speckless.
Such is the depth of the Kolkata squad that they can rotate their players and yet maintain their winning momentum. Their bench is so strong that Shakib Al Hasan, one of the premier all-rounders in the world, is not even getting a look in, while Kiwi pace spearhead Trent Boult has to wait for his turn.
Wisely, the Kolkata management is giving most of the players a run, with young wicketkeeper-batsman Sheldon Jackson getting a look in on Friday. And, it must be said, Jackson kept wickets pretty well after regular keeper Uthappa had taken a knock.
Gambhir and company look like a strong title contender in every measure; but, they would be hoping they have not peaked too soon. And as far as complacency is concerned, as long as Gambhir is at the helm, they should have no worries.
Remember how he browbeat his team after their below-par batting against Royal Challengers Bangalore? It spurred the purple brigade into action and they came out strong, steamrolling Bangalore with the ball.