If there is anything like the art of losing, it was amply on display on Sunday night at the Wankhede as the Kolkata Knight Riders panicked in the last three overs and blew a golden opportunity to put it past Mumbai Indians. The atmosphere was electric, the stage was big and the two former champions produced by far the best match of IPL 2017 so far, giving the packed house at the Wankhede their money's worth, but for ardent KKR followers, it was not a pretty sight to see the team self-destruct the way the did.
It all started in the 18th over of the match. Trent Boult, KKR's pace spearhead from New Zealand came in to bowl. Mumbai had lost the massive wicket of Kieron Pollard in the previous over and still needed 49 runs to win. It was Kolkata's match to lose then.
But the good news for Mumbai was that the big-hitting Hardik Pandya had come in to bat at the fall of Pollard's wicket. A perfect man for the situation, Pandya, if one would have remembered, had plundered 30 runs off the last over in Mumbai's previous match, against Rising Pune Supergiant.
But taking strike to Boult was the relatively unheralded Nitish Rana. He had made a handy contribution against Pune and was playing a good hand in this match too, having scored 29 off 22 balls.
The 18th over proved to be the game-changer. The first two balls produced two singles, but then Boult got his length all awry, sending down two back to back full tosses and Rana took full toll. He carved a boundary through backward point and then sent the ball soaring over long leg and into the stands. The match was starting to turn. Then Pandya cracked a maximum off the last ball of the over, and Mumbai were back on track, with 19 runs from that Boult over.
Medium pacer Ankit Rajpoot, who was drafted into the side in place of leg-spinner Piyush Chawla for this match by the KKR was to bowl the penultimate over. He had got the crucial wickets of Jos Buttler and Krunal Pandya and had a huge responsibility on his shoulders.
There were still 30 runs needed at the start of the that over, but Rana was not ready to go down without a fight. A six and a four brought up his fifty, but then ended up giving a catch to Sunil Narine. He departed, having made a magnificent 50 off 29 balls, doing his credentials a world of good.
Was there still anyone who could have done it for Mumbai? You bet there was. And it was Pandya. He hit a six off the last ball to make it another 19-run over. The game looked to have swung in Mumbai's favour.
Boult came in for the last over, and with 10 runs to defend, KKR seemed to have suffered a nervous breakdown. Suryakumar Yadav, one of the key members of the side failed to gather a straightforward ball at long on and what was worse, let it slip past him to the boundary. Nothing could have been worse in that situation as the equation narrowed further. But wait, the worse was yet to come.
A dot ball later, Pandya sent one way into the night sky and Rishi Dhawan, positioned underneath it slipped at the last moment and was nowhere close to catching the ball. A sitter spurned. KKR were clearly rattled as a distraught Gambhir looked on from the bench, having left the field some time back. A wayward delivery followed and Pandya turned it off his pads for a boundary to complete the win. Kolkata were thoroughly robbed.
Gambhir's boys looked a bundle of nerves at the 'death', which is strange and not expected from a team that have shown a lot of character over the past few years. In fact, if one remembers, they kept their cool all through a difficult, nearly 200-run chase in the 2012 final, even after losing their talisman Gambhir in the first over. It took KKR to their maiden title. In 2014 too, they chased down a stiff target (a 200-run one to be precise), to win their second IPL title. But what clearly came out from the loss on Sunday night was that KKR's 'death' bowling has to be far tighter if they are to see a repeat of 2012 and 2014.
There were not a lot of change of pace, which is such a key weapon at the business end of an innings. Their bowlers were not getting the lengths right too, attempted yorkers ended up as full tosses. It is not unexpected that Rajpoot, who is still a bit raw, would commit such errors, but you would expect better from a top international bowler like Boult, who was billed as a massive strategic buy for KKR in the auctions.
It is perhaps also time to look beyond Yusuf Pathan. That KKR retained him before the auction meant that they were still hoping he would be an X-factor. But there is a limit to hoping, and one must realise that he is way over the hill, and there is no point letting the fond memories of his exploits with Rajasthan Royals blur the reality. Six runs off 11 balls doesn't really cut it for his side, nor does his lethargic fielding that takes you about 30 years back. He is dropping easy catches, taking an eternity to collect and throw and his throws too are way off target. Moreover, his bowling also threatens no one.
Umesh Yadav is expected to return to the side for KKR's next match – their first home match, on 13 April against Kings XI Punjab, which would make space for Bangladesh all rounder Shakib Al Hasan in the squad, with Pathan and Woakes having to sit out.
In spite of the galling loss at the Wankhede, KKR can take away some positives from this match, the foremost being the batting of Manish Pandey. The KKR innings, at one point, looked to be in the doldrums, after the wickets of Gambhir, Robin Uthappa, Lynn and Pathan, but Pandey gave the innings solidity and plundered 81 off 47 balls, and more importantly helped KKR get 23 runs off the last over, and took them to a total, which made the thriller possible.
He was terribly off colour in India colours during the T20I series against England earlier this year, but is back in form and proving his worth in the KKR middle order.
Narine showed he had not lost his charm, conceding a mere 22 runs in four overs, while taking a wicket. His spin partner, Kuldeep Yadav impressed again, though he got the stick at the end.
KKR would be terribly concerned about the injury suffered by their batting powerhouse Lynn. KKR had already lost the services of Andre Russell, and now if Lynn is forced out, that will be two huge impact players gone. It would be a killer blow for KKR. It would be bad news for the neutrals too, who would sorely miss the 'Lynnsanity'.
The Kolkata franchise lost a match that they should have won nine times out of ten and lost an opportunity to improve their record against Mumbai Indians at the Wankhede, which is now an appalling 1-6 against them, but the IPL is a marathon tournament, and this is just the initial stage. A win at the Eden Gardens on Thursday would bring their campaign back on track, but what is of utter importance is to learn the lessons from Sunday's loss. If they do that, there is no reason why they can't still be a force in the tournament.
And on losing Russell and now possibly Lynn, KKR will do well to remember, Pakistan had lost two of their match-winners – Waqar Younis and Saeed Anwar – before the 1992 World Cup and had not started well, having been thumped by West Indies and England, but still went on to win the showpiece event. So things would be difficult, but nothing is impossible if the plans and processes are right and executed to perfection.