Talk about having a nemesis. A bete noire who would give you cold feet every time you come up against them. That's what Mumbai Indians (MI) have been for Kolkata Knight Riders (KKR). It all started with the inaugural edition of the Indian Premier League (IPL) in 2008, which saw the Kolkata franchise collapsing to 67 all out at the Wankhede, which remains one of the lowest team totals in the tournament.
Since then captains have changed, squads have changed, but Kolkata's struggles against Mumbai have continued with alarming regularity. The first leg of the ongoing season produced a thriller at the Wankhede, though in keeping with what had become a 'norm' by then, KKR found a way to lose, letting the match slip through their fingers.
Even a crunch game, as the one of Saturday, failed to bring out the best in the Kolkata boys, and they slumped to their 15th loss to Mumbai in 20 matches in the IPL. Indeed, it's hard to think of too many teams that have owned an opposition over a considerable length of time as Mumbai Indians have owned the Knight Riders.
KKR looked to have been struck by stage fright, and went down by nine runs. That they were playing at the Eden Gardens, which otherwise has been a fortress for them, was of no avail, and the loss on Saturday was KKR's first at home while chasing, since 2012. And that loss was also against Mumbai, five years back.
The Kolkata pacers failed to take advantage of the juice on the Eden pitch, which would have been freshened up by early showers. This was unlike the match against Royal Challengers Bangalore last month, which saw Nathan Coulter-Nile and Co run riot on a pitch similarly made lively by rain, bowling out the visitors for the lowest total in IPL history.
There was no Coulter-Nile on Saturday, nor was Chris Woakes available. Trent Boult was back in the side and came up with a creditable 2/30 in his four overs. Rookie Ankit Rajpoot also had a good outing, with figures of 1/14 in three overs, but what hurt KKR was that their big hope Umesh Yadav was taken for runs. The Mumbai batsmen gave no wicket away to the Team India speedster, while plundering 40 runs from his four overs.
The spin twins — Sunil Narine and Kuldeep Yadav — also did not exactly have a great day at the office, and despite a good start, having got Lendl Simmons for a duck, KKR conceded over 170 runs.
There was a good period of play for Kolkata when they conceded only 33 runs in the six overs from nine to 14, getting hit for only three fours. But Saurabh Tiwary and Ambati Rayudu broke the shackles in the next over, bowled by Narine, and fetched three boundaries in the 15th over itself. Tiwary and Rayudu batting together, and batting as well as they did, was a throwback to the times when they were hot commodity as a pair for Mumbai.
The target that Mumbai set was competitive, but not out-and-out match-winning. In fact, KKR never fell far behind in the chase, but what did them in was the loss of wickets at regular intervals. What would also be galling for the Kolkata franchise is that too many of their batsmen, including captain Gautam Gambhir, threw their wickets away.
It has been KKR's policy this year to bat with considerable aggression and batsmen at the top have been given the licence to throw their bats at almost everything. However, what the team management clearly seems to have forgotten to tell their batsmen is that all aggression and no caution is a recipe for disaster. The Kolkata batsmen did not adjust according to the conditions last evening, often choosing to play unnecessary attacking shots, and self-destructing in the process.
Narine, Gambhir, Chris Lynn, Yusuf Pathan, all fell trying to hit the bowlers a fair distance, when all they needed was to take the ones and twos and the odd boundary or two in the over. KKR were not chasing a score well over 200 as Mumbai Indians were against Kings XI Punjab the other night. Players like Narine, Lynn and Pathan seem to be able to play only on the fifth gear, and nothing else, which looks spectacular when it comes off, but there is always a risk of accident.
It may all be countered by saying that that is the way these batsmen play, but after a point of time, that argument doesn't cut much ice and sounds merely as an excuse. When you can play in only one way, that is to hit everything, notwithstanding the match situation or the delivery, you invariably are limiting your utility to the team. You are also doing a disservice to the team, when the order of the day is not going whole hog on the offensive.
Narine may be sent in with a mandate to go after the bowling, but one expects him to choose the balls to hit more wisely than he did on Saturday. The West Indian all-rounder tried to loft a short delivery that got big on him and had him cramped for room, only to hit the ball way in the air, and offer a simple catch at extra cover. Gambhir, Robin Uthappa and Lynn then fell in quick succession. That brought Pathan and Manish Pandey together at the crease and a lot of KKR's chances depended on this partnership.
Pathan came in and slammed three sixes. He raced to 20 off six balls, but his batting was looking like an accident waiting to happen. There was hardly any footwork, and he looked like swinging his bat at anything and everything that was coming his way. If there was a good contact, the ball would sail into the stands; if there wasn't one, there would be a chance for the fielders to take. As if on cue, Pathan spooned a catch to long on and his innings was over in seven balls. Pathan, for quite sometime now, has been looking no more than a tail-ender who can tonk a ball or two and if this is the contribution he is to make at a crucial position of No 6, the KKR team management has to question whether he fits in their scheme of things.
When Pandey got out in the 18th over, playing a desperate shot, KKR needed 25 runs from 17 balls. It was eminently achievable, but they ran out of the batting to chase down the remaining runs. The KKR batsmen failed to take it deep, a number of them having gifted their wickets away earlier.
Kolkata have now lost four of their last five matches and have surrendered the chance to be in the top two. They will face either Rising Pune Supergiant or defending champions Sunrisers Hyderabad in the Eliminator at Bangalore on 17 May.
A campaign which started with a bang for KKR has ended with a whimper in the group stages. Much like the last two years, KKR have lost considerable steam in the fag end of the competition. Now, they have to win three matches on the trot if they are to win the title; everything is a knockout for them. Can they do it? They have the calibre, but just seems to have fallen off the peak at the crucial juncture.