Kolkata Knight Riders lost three early wickets during their chase against Sunrisers Hyderabad, but a target of 144 never seemed unassailable to them. Shubman Gill scored an unbeaten 70 in 62 balls, while Eoin Morgan (42 not out in 29) upped the tempo towards the end to see Kolkata home with two overs to spare. The early finish was important, for it improved their net run rate slightly after their humiliating defeat against Mumbai Indians.
Hyderabad had scored 142/4, a bizarre score to begin with. They did not lose wickets (had they done that, the total might have been justified). Their biggest partnership lasted 51 balls and yielded 62 runs as Mohammad Nabi, one of the most feared middle-order batsmen, watched from the dugout, as did the very potent quartet of Abhishek Sharma, Priyam Garg, Rashid Khan, and Bhuvneshwar Kumar.
They hit only eight fours and four sixes a boundary every 10 balls. Between overs 6 and 15 they hit two fours and one six one every three overs. Only twice in the history of the tournament has a side scored fewer while losing only four wickets.
Did Hyderabad bat poorly? The promotion of Wriddhiman Saha over Nabi was counterintuitive, but barring that, it was mostly the superb all-round display of bowling and some smart changes by Dinesh Karthik that did the trick.
Kolkata handed out a T20 cap to Kamlesh Nagarkoti, whom they had picked way back in 2018 along with Shivam Mavi. Persistent injuries had kept Nagarkoti out of cricket for two seasons in the IPL, but not this time. They also recalled Varun Chakravarthy, who had had a solitary forgettable IPL outing so far, in 2019.
KKR took a risk here. Pat Cummins, their Rs 15.5-crore man, had gone for 49 runs in three overs against Mumbai, while Kuldeep Yadav had not impressed either. Sunil Narine and Mavi had delivered the other night, but this time they were up against David Warner and Jonny Bairstow, the most feared opening pair of the tournament.
It was never going to be easy. Karthik started with Narine, and trusted Cummins ahead of Mavi. And Cummins, perhaps miffed by the flak he had drawn after the Mumbai match, demonstrated his class. He bowled fast from the first ball, not allowing Warner or Bairstow any room to free their arms.
Warner went after Narine in the third over, but this was going to be Cummins' day. Cummins now bowled the most probing over of this edition till date.
The first ball cramped Bairstow, who tried to play towards the off and got an inside edge. The second, bowled from the corner of the crease, whooshed over the stumps. Warner got a single off the third, the fourth barely missed the off-stump, and Bairstow had a caught-behind overturned off the fifth. He was bowled off the sixth.
So charged up was Cummins that Karthik gave him another over in the Powerplay. His figures read 3-0-11-1 at the end of the Powerplay. Sunrisers were 45/1 in six overs, but with Warner and Manish Pandey looking confident, they looked set for a reasonable total.
This was when Karthik played the cards he had held back, introducing Kuldeep and Varun together. 'Mystery spinners' often fade out once they become decipherable. Narine is an exception (despite having to change his action), and Kuldeep, too, seemed determined to stick to the basics, to bowl on a length a shade outside off and bring them back into Pandey.
Varun, however, was another thing. He switched between wrist spin and finger spin with remarkable ease. More importantly, he could disguise his variations well. Warner, tentative in his first over, misread the first ball of his second. He tried to play towards the leg, the ball took the leading edge, and the ball looped back to Varun.
With Sunrisers meandering at a rate barely above six, they needed someone to provide them an impetus. Saha's IPL strike rate in the low 130s is not too ordinary, but most of it has come while batting in the Powerplay overs. He can be explosive, but he is better utilised in the top three, where the Sunrisers do not have room.
With Pandey unable to break the shackles and Saha new to the crease, Karthik decided to give his debutant an over. He hit the 140-kph mark with his first ball and was generally on target. Only one four would be hit in his two overs.
Time was now running out for Hyderabad. Sensing their urgency, Karthik got both Narine and Varun to bowl out their quotas. Varun left the batsman guessing many a time, finished with 4-0-25-1, but that included a six off his last ball. It was an impressive comeback.
There were still four overs to get out of the way. Hyderabad, 110/2, were probably eyeing 150, perhaps more, even closer to 160. That would have helped them to make a match out of this.
At this point, Karthik could have opted for the defensive way, saving Cummins for the last over. Had he done that, he would have had to extract three overs out of Kuldeep or the inexperienced Mavi or Nagarkoti.
But this was not a day to go on the back-foot. Hyderabad were already under pressure. They would have to go for the kill. Karthik saw this as the right time to push the onslaught back by another over. Pandey got a four, but that was off a bizarre flat-batted slap past mid-off and even then, only eight came off the over. Desperate times called for desperate measures, for no textbook shot seemed to be working against Cummins.
With Cummins out of the way, Pandey and Saha had probably backed themselves against the inexperienced Mavi and Nagarkoti in the last three overs. Karthik chose this moment for the final throw of his dice. He summoned Andre Russell, slower than the two out-and-out fast bowlers but with reasonable experience of bowling at the death in high-profile matches. Russell had not bowled against Mumbai.
Like his teammates, Russell stuck to the basics, bowling low full tosses at the death. Pandey, frustrated at being unable to get under the ball for those lofted strokes, made a half-attempt to go down and attempt a scoop of sorts before changing his mind. The full-toss, slightly higher than usual, went back to Russell.
Russell might have got another wicket in the same over, had Nagarkoti not dropped Saha. Nabi, sent about ten overs after he should have been, got a four off Mavi at the other end, but that was it.
Kolkata's stranglehold was complete. They had tried seven bowlers, all of whom had delivered as per requirement. Their three fast bowlers had cramped the opposition batsmen with pace from a length; the three spinners, each different from the other, bowled with unyielding accuracy; and the surprise package of Russell, bringing all his experience into play.
None of them conceded more than 8.50 an over. That was where the match was won.