The Kolkata Knight Riders almost got beat at their own game on Sunday against the Rising Pune Super Giants. On a slow pitch with plenty of turn, KKR were lucky to emerge with a nervy two-wicket win with three balls to spare as their batsmen were strangled in the middle overs by a combination of leg-spin, left-arm spin and the wily dibbly-dobblies of Rajat Bhatia.
That the Kolkata side emerged with a two-wicket win was down to a complete team effort, a common sports writing trope, but one that is particularly accurate in this case. Seven KKR players bowled at least two overs each; ten KKR players walked out to the middle with bat in hand (though Sunil Narine did not take strike.)
In the end, the difference, as RPS captain MS Dhoni explained, came down to execution and the batting depth that KKR possesses.
For the first time this season, Gautam Gambhir and Robin Uthappa were both out cheaply. Uthappa was leg-before to the first ball of the innings, getting stuck in the crease as the ball nipped back into him. Gambhir was carelessly run-out in the third over and swiped his bat in frustration.
There was no Manish Pandey either at Number 3 – he has been struck down with chicken pox – so Suryakumar Yadav was promoted up the order. Hailed as the next big thing in Mumbai cricket after he rampaged his way to 754 runs at an average of 68.54 in his debut Ranji Trophy season in 2011-12, Yadav hasn’t hit those heights again in first-class cricket but over the last couple of years, has been crafting a reputation as a finisher in the IPL. On this occasion, as de facto opener, he proved to be the spine of the chase, racing to 40 from 23 balls inside the first six overs before hunkering down as the RPS spinners got on top.
He was supported by a surprisingly calm Yusuf Pathan, who reined in his attacking instincts to dab the ball around for singles on a tricky surface. It was Yusuf’s canny knock – and his 51-run partnership with Suryakumar – that kept KKR in the game. Had they lost another wicket at that stage, they wouldn’t have had the batting left to risk the big hitting necessary to close the chase.
And it was the big hitting that made the crucial difference. It wasn’t Carlos Brathwaite-type stuff, but KKR landed enough heavy blows to take them over the line despite a few jangling nerves. Yusuf got stuck into to a full delivery from leggie Murugan Ashwin in the 14th over before Andre Russell hit left-arm spinner Ankit Sharma for back-to-back sixes in the 17th over. What all three deliveries had in common was their length – they were too full – something Dhoni lamented in his post-match interview.
“When I got time, I told the spinners not to bowl up to the batsmen. Still five were hit. 30 runs were scored,” he said.
Even Sathish, brought in to replace Pandey, helped himself to a ‘”maximum” before Umesh Yadav smashed another full delivery, this one from Thisara Perera, down the ground and into the crowd to cap the win.
Yusuf and Suryakumar aside, none of the other seven KKR batsmen who took strike lasted more than 11 deliveries or made more than 17. But that’s T20 cricket for you. Teams don’t need players to dig in, they need players to blast out. As we saw in the World T20, dot balls mean less when sixes are always in play.
After the game, KKR team mentor Wasim Akram used the word calm repeatedly in one conversation. “We are all very calm. The captain is calm. We are relaxed. We are calm. And we are working hard,” he said.
The batting at times did not support those claims – Satish and Piyush Chawla got out to shots they did not need to play – but the victor gets to tell the story they prefer. Kolkata Knight Riders have now won three games on the road in a row, batting second each time. As they march on to the top of the table, the unusual dominance of chasing teams in this IPL marches on alongside them too.