The Kolkata Knight Riders tend to read the Eden Garden pitch like an expert poker player reads her opponents.
From 2013 till 2015, KKR won 12 games and lost just three at Kolkata, with one match being abandoned. In 2013, they won four out of six matches at home but just two out of 10 away. Their strategy while playing at home has been simple — stock the squad with quality spinners and let the low and slow nature of the pitch do the rest.
They departed from that formula for their opening game of the current campaign, playing four seamers in the victory over Delhi Daredevils, but again, it appeared they had read the pitch right. There was swing and seam for the fast bowlers, and Delhi folded like a cheap suit. Then it was back to the script against Mumbai Indians in the second game with three spinners in the side.
Of all the teams in the league, Mumbai have the best record against KKR, having won 11 out of 16 games heading into this season. After batting first and posting 187, Kolkata captain Gautam Gambhir said he thought a total of around 160 was defendable on this pitch and sounded optimistic that his spinners would be able to keep Mumbai from chasing a score that was well in excess of that.
If any more evidence was needed, you only needed to look back a week and a half ago, when the West Indies needed four sixes in the final over to overhaul England's total of 155 to win the World T20 title in Kolkata. In all IPL matches here, only once has a total above 188 been chased down, and that was way back in 2010.
Sometimes though, even the best poker player gets the read wrong. This Eden Gardens pitch was flatter than a pancake and though there was some turn to be found, the ball found the middle of the bat far more frequently. The three spinners in the side — Brad Hogg, Piyush Chawla and Kuldeep Yadav — finished with economy rates of 9.25, 9.15 and 9.25 respectively, as Mumbai romped home with five balls and seven wickets to spare.
In the previous game, Hogg and Chawla combined to post figures of 5 for 46. In this game, the same pair plus Kuldeep finished with 2 for 103 from 11.1 overs.
The pitch was so good that even Mitch McClenaghan, sent in as a pinch hitter at No 4, was able to tee off as if this was a charity golf tournament. In the eight balls he faced, all against Hogg and Chawla, McClenaghan smashed three sixes. While Mumbai captain Rohit Sharma produced the star turn with an unbeaten 84 from 54 balls and Jos Buttler announced himself to local IPL fans with a blistering 41 from 22 balls, it was McClenaghan's little cameo that gave Mumbai the momentum and switched the pressure from the batting to the bowling side.
Rattled by Mumbai’s big hitting and with the pitch not doing enough to throw the batsmen's timings off, Hogg and company lost their lengths. Rank long hops were served up as appetisers and full tosses followed as the main course. The Mumbai batsmen helped themselves to plenty of both.
McClenaghan lofted Chawla for two sixes and Buttler smoked Hogg straight down the ground for four and then pulled him deep into the stands for six.
It didn't help that all three spin bowlers are wrist spinners, making it harder to control both flight and length. Moreover, the seamers didn't bowl much better either. John Hastings went for 7.75 runs an over and Andre Russell went for 13. But once it was clear the batsmen weren't going to muck around and the pitch was about as helpful as a winter coat in the desert, KKR had no Plan B.
Knight Riders now go on a six-game road trip. By the time they get back, they will likely be in the market for a little home court advantage. To get it, they will need the pitch to cooperate with them, like it has done in seasons past.