A walk in the park. That's what it turned out to be in the end for Kolkata Knight Riders, who overhauled the competitive target set by Rising Pune Supergiant with consummate ease. And in doing so, they not only maintained their hundred percent record at Gahunje, they stormed to the top of the Indian Premier League (IPL) 2017 table.
Gautam Gambhir's side came to this match on the back of a thumping win over Royal Challengers Bangalore in their previous match and has now built up quite a bit of steam, having won six of their eight matches so far this season. Pune, on the other hand, continue to have an average season, in which a stunning win is followed more often than not by a sobering loss.
Kolkata would have missed the services of Nathan Coulter-Nile, who had made an impression straightaway after coming into the side in place of Trent Boult. Coulter-Nile was top draw in the away win over Delhi Daredevils and even better against RCB at the Eden Gardens only a few days back. He has been bowling with pace and venom and giving his side a lot of incisiveness upfront. It would not be an exaggeration, therefore, to say that Coulter-Nile has been playing a role with the ball for KKR that Chris Lynn used to play with the bat, bombarding the opposition at the very outset, helping the side to wrest the early initiative.
However, the Australian pacer has had a history of debilitating injuries which have hurt his international and domestic careers, and it was wise for the Kolkata management to rest him. He has been clearly identified by KKR as their pace spearhead, whom they need fresh, fit and firing on all cylinders at the business end of the tournament, now that they have one foot in the playoffs. It makes sense, therefore, to preserve a quality resource, for the bigger battles ahead.
It was an opportunity for KKR's other pace spearhead, Umesh Yadav, and the support cast to show they can still be a handful for the opposition. The pacers, however, got some stick as Ajinkya Rahane, Rahul Tripathi and then, captain Steve Smith, who might soon be declared the owner of this Pune ground, made merry.
However, such is the depth in the Kolkata team that when the pacers are off-colour, the spinners can step up to the plate. And that's what happened on Wednesday as well, with Kuldeep Yadav being the pick of the bowlers. He prised out the wicket of Mahendra Singh Dhoni, when the former Pune captain was just starting to look menacing, with a gem of a delivery. Kuldeep's wrong 'un had Dhoni beaten all ends up, as he came forward, played inside the line of the ball and got himself stumped. Dhoni's wicket at that stage was priceless as it meant KKR would have had to chase at least 20 runs less.
Gambhir's aggressive captaincy should also be singled out for special praise. At one time he had a slip, leg slip and silly point in place for Dhoni. It reminded you of the attacking fields he set against Chris Gayle and Virat Kohli in the previous match. Clearly, the KKR captain doesn't look at the fame of the opposition batsmen, but sees in him a wicket that must be taken.
The 18th over of the Pune innings produced another wicket as it was the turn of the former KKR player Manoj Tiwary to be foxed by a Kuldeep wrong 'un. Tiwary didn't read the delivery at all, and was trying to turn it away on the leg side, and was thoroughly beaten. Kuldeep has surely been one of the top bowlers for Kolkata this season and what his phenomenal rise has done is that there is no place for a player of the calibre of Shakib Al Hasan in the KKR starting eleven.
The 182 that RPS got in the end was a bit less than than what they would have bargained for against a strong Kolkata batting line-up. Especially as they were without Ben Stokes, who was sitting out with a sore shoulder, and the English all-rounder's absence meant that their bowling would be a touch lightweight. Imran Tahir and Dan Christian had to play the lead roles, but there had to be meaningful contributions from the likes of Jaydev Unadkat, Shardul Thakur and Washington Sundar. Did they have the wherewithal to challenge the KKR batsmen?
As it soon turned out, they did not, at least not on Wednesday, as Gautam Gambhir and Robin Uthappa tore into the Pune attack. The Sunil Narine experiment did not pay off for Kolkata last evening, as the West Indian 'pinch hitter' paid the price for being a terrible runner. A fine piece of fielding by Sundar and great game awareness by Dhoni, just helping the throw on to the stumps, had Narine well short of his crease.
However, as much as KKR would have wanted another quickfire cameo from Narine, his dismissal would not have made them unduly worried. Uthappa and Gambhir soon took over and smashed the Pune bowlers to all parts. Uthappa hammered his way to a 47-ball 87, with seven fours and six sixes, his fifty coming off just 26 balls. This was his third half-century in the IPL this season and with him hitting a rich vein of form as the tournament enters the second half would make Kolkata extremely happy. It seems a long time since he was a regular member of the Team India set up, but his performances in the IPL may just give him an outside chance of selection for the Champions Trophy in June.
Gambhir made his 100th match as the KKR captain memorable with a half-century of his own as he scored a sublime 62 off 46 balls and played the perfect foil as Uthappa was blazing away. Gambhir and Uthappa put up a mammoth 158-run stand for the second wicket. When such a thing happens, nine times out of ten, you win pretty comfortably and that was how it was against Pune as KKR won with 11 balls to spare.
Pune's cause was not helped one bit by the indiscipline of the bowlers and fielders. They bowled as many as nine wides and both Uthappa and Gambhir were dropped. What would be particularly galling for RPS is that those catches, grassed by Unadkat and Sundar were absolute sitters. What it did was to not allow Pune put up a credible defence of their total.
KKR were guilty of fielding lapses too, as Yusuf Pathan dropped an easy chance and conceded unnecessary runs on the field. KKR are doing most things right and would want to iron out the few creases they have in their performances to mount an almighty charge at the title. Uthappa with the bat and Kuldeep with the ball displayed the depth the Kolkata franchise possesses and that there would always be someone or the other playing match-winning roles. For Pune, though, there is a lot to think about. They are fourth on the table at the moment and what they badly need is a degree of consistency.