IPL 2016: Lions are kings of IPL jungle once again, but win over KKR far from flawless

Kolkata Knight Riders versus Gujarat Lions was effectively a top-of-the-table clash. It may have been second taking on third on the points table, but both sides knew the victor would end the day on top. And it was the Kings who outranked the Knights.

Things went in the Lions' favour right from the toss. Of the 11 games the Lions have played thus far in the IPL, only two have gone in favour of the team batting first — first was when the Lions imploded against bottom-placed Kings XI Punjab, the other was a one-run win over Delhi Daredevils. Conditions, whether real or imagined, have been such this season that chasing has become a huge factor in winning games. We can safely expect the IPL 2016 winning captain to also be the most successful caller of heads or tails.

Getting lady luck back on his side was a must for Suresh Raina if his team was going to get back on the winning path. Gujarat have a great deal going for them, but there is always room for that little bit extra, that unseen helping hand.

Gujarat Lions seamers bowled well against the Knight Riders. BCCI

Gujarat Lions seamers bowled well against the Knight Riders. BCCI

And they made excellent use of that toss. Generally, Praveen Kumar and Dhawal Kulkarni have operated as the Lions' opening swing-bowling salvo, and did the same again on Sunday night to reap rich rewards. Kumar took two wickets in his second over, bowling Gautam Gambhir off his thigh pad, and then getting Manish Pandey caught behind second ball. In the next over, Kulkarni found Robin Uthappa's edge, and Kolkata Knight Riders were rocking at 21-3.

The captain was excited by the swing he was seeing, and imaginatively introduced Dwayne Smith to have an exploratory wobble with his medium-pace. It produced another breakthrough, thanks to a fantastic catch by the skipper himself, attackingly placed at slip. Suryakumar Yadav tried to place a lifting ball over Raina, but he leapt like a salmon out of water and grasped the chance one-handed. It’s not often I startle my wife when watching cricket. But my frenzied cry of "Oh, what a catch!" made her jump nearly as high as Raina had.

At 28-4 after six overs, it should have been game over. But not for the first time, the Lions' captain got in a tangle with his bowlers — mainly because he is spoilt for choice. He bowled seamers all the way through to over nine (score: 43-4); and then spin for the next six overs, those half-dozen overs costing 55 for no loss. As a move, it was neither one thing nor the other. If he intended to introduce spin, he ought to have done it three or four overs earlier when the new batsmen were settling in and taking singles; or have had at least one seamer operating through the middle overs alongside the spinners. As it was, Ravindra Jadeja, Shivil Kaushik and Pravin Tambe were all punished — particularly the last two, and allowed Shakib al-Hasan and Yusuf Pathan to rebuild and then accelerate towards a decent total.

I have felt for some time that the Lions' best side should include three front-line spinners in their XI to cover all options and to be ready for a helpful turning track. But what was most noticeable on Sunday was not poor bowling from Kaushik and Tambe — anyone can have a bad day, and they both did — but the knock-on effect this had.

In the seventh over, Tambe dropped Shakib at third man; he made good ground to get there, but his hands were awkward, and it was a bad miss that could ultimately have proved far more costly. Kaushik too fumbled more than once.

To have both these spinners in the side means carrying two passengers in the field; and while one is more than twice the age of the other, neither is sprightly or safe — one is lumbering and slow, the other fidgety and clumsy. They both do their best, of course, but one of them has to go. Personally, I would stick with the younger man. The agility of Ishan Kishan or Akshdeep Nath was starkly missing in the outfield — and I confess I've changed my mind: I now would pick either of them as a specialist fielder batting at number 8.

I think the change would also help focus Raina's mind when he considers his bowling options: Kumar, Kulkarni and Bravo are the seamers; Kaushik and Jadeja the spinners. Raina still has spares if need be: Smith if it's a seaming track, the skipper himself if it's turning sideways.

On Sunday, Raina re-introduced his three main seamers for the last five overs, but this was not using them to their best potential. If he had been brave enough to bowl Kumar and Kulkarni out earlier, he may well have finished KKR off. Instead, he let let them off the hook.

Rameez Raja reckoned that the Lions were pedestrian in fielding and strategy. He later added that he felt Bravo has "lost his mystery" when he was left to bowl three of the last five overs, which went for 60 runs, of which 37 came off  his bowling.

Raina's use of Bravo has become too predictable and formulaic. A winning formula can become a losing one quite easily if the pattern you set is too obvious for oppositions to learn to counter it. And apart from this heaping an unfair amount of pressure upon the Trinidadian, it paints him as a one-trick pony. Bravo is not just a death bowler — but if he keeps being cast in this role, he may weary of endless walks to the scaffold — and his blade will be blunted.

Maybe, however, Raina's best trick of all was to ensure Andre Russell didn't get a bat. But while KKR shouldn't have got anywhere near their eventual 158-4, the 134-run stand between Pathan and Shakib was an excellent partnership and the pair should be given full credit.

You could detect a few fallen shoulders in the field near the end of the KKR innings — a natural occurrence for any team enduring a lean spell and having the faint smell of another defeat waft past their nose.

Thankfully for them, however, the scent of victory instead blew through Eden Gardens. Smith, McCullum and Finch all made quick 20s, but the star-turn came from Dinesh Karthik, who played a delightful knock of 51 off 29 balls. He worked the ball intelligently into gaps to the fence, taking three successive fours off Brad Hogg's first over with a reverse sweep behind square, followed by two more shots worked to the wide long-on area — off balls of dissimilar lengths. As his innings progressed, the late cut was a regular productive source of further boundaries, and he wasn't reluctant to either hook or pull. It was an innings of excellent creative stroke-play.

As it turned out, the pursuit was easily accomplished, and once again the Lions looked the real deal, roaring impressively like the opening titles of an MGM movie, rather than cowering like the cowardly incarnation in The Wizard of Oz.

They now have a well-earned rest, and will return to the fray on Saturday afternoon against Royal Challengers Bangalore knowing that in all probability one more win will be enough to qualify for the competition's later stages. They take their break sitting on top of the IPL table. They have re-found their confidence, and their winning ways.

It's good to have them back.

Updated Date: May 09, 2016 17:11 PM

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