Kolkata Knight Riders 194 for 6 (Rana 81, Narine 64, Nortje 2-27, Rabada 2-33, Stoinis 2-41) beat Delhi Capitals 135 for 9 (Iyer 47, Chakravarthy 5-20) by 59 runs
Their last game had brought 84 for 8. Today, against the Delhi Capitals, they were 42 for 3 after 7.2 overs. Andre Russell was still out injured, so they didn't have the likeliest candidate to spark an unlikely turnaround. The Kolkata Knight Riders' hold on fourth place had never looked this tenuous.
At the crease were Nitish Rana, with scores of 9, 2, 9, 5, 29 and 0 in his last six innings; and Sunil Narine, who had a highest score of 17 from five innings this season. That run of form had cost Narine his place at the top of the order, and there was no way to tell - given the unusual trajectory of his career, spent almost entirely in the tail or at the top with hardly anything in between - if he could crack a T20 middle-order gig.
Rana and Narine put on 115 in 56 balls. The Knight Riders posted 194 for 6, the second-highest first-innings total in Abu Dhabi this season. Their bowlers roared into life too. Pat Cummins, who'd gone wicketless in six of his last seven games, blew away both openers with his seam movement.
And then it was all Varun Chakravarthy. The match was in the Knight Riders' control when he came on, but Shreyas Iyer and Rishabh Pant had moved the Capitals into a position where they still had a chance: they needed 119 from 54 balls, with eight wickets in hand. He was bowling on a pitch where the Capitals had only bowled four overs of spin, and where one of them, R Ashwin, had gone for 45 in his three, but Chakravarthy could have been bowling somewhere else entirely. He finished with 5 for 20 from his four overs, and the Knight Riders finished with a 59-run win.
They'd begun the game with the worst net run rate of all eight teams. They ended it with a healthy improvement on that front, two more points to firm up their playoffs hopes, and a much healthier look about their line-up with three games left to play in the league phase.
Shuffling the pack
Since shelving the Narine option, the Knight Riders have generally opened with Shubman Gill and Rahul Tripathi and used Rana at No. 3. It hadn't been working, though. The Knight Riders came into this game with the worst powerplay run rate (6.73) of all teams and hadn't ended a single powerplay without losing a wicket.
They shuffled their top three today, without immediately apparent success. Anrich Nortje sent back Gill and Tripathi by the end of the powerplay, and Rana - who opened for the first time this season - was batting on 13 off 14 at that point. Then, in the eighth over, Kagiso Rabada produced a bit of late outswing to nick off Dinesh Karthik.
Ashwin x (Narine + Rana) = mayhem
The Capitals used their seamers for seven of the first eight overs and Axar Patel for the other. They hadn't yet bowled R Ashwin. Perhaps this was because Rana was at the crease. Before today, he'd scored 55 off 22 balls against Ashwin without being dismissed. The other bowlers hadn't dismissed Rana, however, and the Capitals almost had to bowl Ashwin. And they did. Except he was now bowling to not one but two batsmen who might have fancied taking him on. Narine, before today, had hit Ashwin for 28 off 10 balls, without being dismissed.
A lot of data on T20 match-ups is built on small sample sizes and can be swayed by one or two outlier performances. You can't always read too much into them. In this case, though, the story told by the numbers played out exactly as indicated. Narine hit Ashwin's second ball for six - over long-off, one of his favourite hitting zones - and it was as if he'd pressed a button that instantly reversed the game's momentum.
Ashwin went for 13 in that over, and 15 in his second - in which Rana reverse-swept him and lofted him over the covers for two of the most emphatic boundaries in his innings. To Narine, Ashwin departed completely from the around-the-wicket, into the stumps style of bowling that's brought him so much success against left-handers, going over the wicket instead and dangling up legbreaks and wrong'uns as well. On this day, it just didn't work.
In between Ashwin's first two overs, the Capitals bowled Tushar Deshpande and Marcus Stoinis, who went for 18 and 11 respectively, with both batsmen giving themselves room and hitting inside-out with impunity. The Capitals, perhaps, had erred in their choice of bowlers during this mini-phase. In retrospect, they might think it was probably a moment to bring on Rabada or Nortje to break the momentum that the Knight Riders were so ominously gathering.
The four overs starting with Ashwin's introduction brought the Knight Riders 59 runs.
An emphatic finish
Nortje came on after those four overs, and sent down a 13th that only went for eight, with four of them coming via an edged boundary. Deshpande, showing control with his wide yorkers, conceded only nine in the 16th over.
Rabada then bowled a 17th over that showed up the Capitals' early tactics against Rana and Narine. Both batsmen can be discomfited by fast, short bowling, but the Capitals hadn't bowled much of it at all to them. Until Rabada dismissed Narine with a short ball that cramped him for room, and bowled another good bouncer that Rana picked up a boundary off, with a top-edged hook.
Either side of those reasonable moments for the Capitals, the Knight Riders continued to dominate. Rana unfurled a Knight Riders shirt with his recently deceased father-in-law's name on it, reminding everyone of the emotional hurdles he'd had to get through while playing this innings, in addition to all the cricketing ones. Narine, in the process of picking up 13 off the last four balls he faced from Ashwin, got to his fifty as well.
Rana and Eoin Morgan smacked the bowling around for 37 off 18 after Narine's dismissal, and though both fell off the last two balls of the innings - Rana to one of the few shoulder-high short balls he faced - the Knight Riders were well and truly in command
The real Pat Cummins…
… is a properly fast, 145kph bowler who hits the pitch hard and seams it and gets the ball to jar the bat upon impact. Or the pad, as when he nipped the first ball of the Capitals innings back at Ajinkya Rahane and trapped him on the crease. Or the stumps, as when he straightened one past Shikhar Dhawan's outside edge in his second over to bowl him for 6, to follow innings of 69*, 57, 101* and 106*. From 13 for 2, the Capitals went for the approach that most chasing teams have employed in this IPL - preserve wickets and back your lower order to catch up with the required rate. Iyer timed the ball like a dream right from the moment he came to the crease and check-drove Cummins wide of mid-on for four, and Pant hooked his fifth ball for six, but either side of that sort of strokeplay, neither batsman took too many chances, and the Knight Riders bowlers didn't give too many freebies away.
When you need 119 from 54 balls, you need to take chances, and Chakravarthy's figures can be partly explained by that. Pant slogged the second ball he faced from him to the fielder at deep square leg, for instance, and Shimron Hetmyer and Iyer also fell to catches on the boundary, in his second over.
But Chakravarthy - and Narine too, bowling with a modified action that had him hide the ball behind his back before delivery, like a slow Jeff Thomson - bowled differently to Ashwin on a pitch that didn't offer too much grip. Ashwin didn't bowl a Test-match trajectory necessarily, but he certainly hung the ball in the air for longer than Chakravarthy and Narine did. The two Knight Riders spinners instead bowled much like their seam-bowling counterparts, predominantly quick and into the pitch, short of the batsman's natural hitting arc. To this Chakravarthy also added a layer of mystery, getting his wrong'uns in particular to kick up off the surface. Occasionally he bowled one slower, with more loop, but usually did this while bowling a wider line.
The wickets kept tumbling, the Capitals' task grew more and more desperate, and the Knight Riders began looking more and more like the Knight Riders of old.