'Did not think the target would be too difficult' - Yusuf
Before Kolkata Knight Riders' match against Royal Challengers Bangalore on Monday, Andre Russell and Yusuf Pathan had managed a combined tally of only 180 runs in seven games. When Russell joined Yusuf at 69 for 4 in the chase of 186, the asking rate had already ballooned past 11.
Russell, who was reprieved on 13, pricked the balloon with three successive boundaries off left-arm wrist spinner Tabraiz Shamsi in the 15th over. Yusuf then muscled 24 off Shane Watson in the 17th over to reduce the equation to 23 off the last three overs. Three balls later, Russell holed out to sweeper cover for 39 off 24 balls, but Yusuf stayed unbeaten on 60 off 29 balls to take Knight Riders home with five wickets and five balls to spare.
So what was the game plan during their blistering 96-run partnership for the fifth wicket?
"We were not thinking of anything in particular," Yusuf said. "We knew if we stuck around and played our shots, the target would not be too difficult to chase. At one point, when I was setting myself up, Russell played really well, taking the pressure off me. So that was very important, that we played for each other."
Yusuf also revealed the pair's approach to pacing the innings. "We wanted to keep wickets in hand, while still playing our shots to prevent pressure from building," Yusuf told iplt20.com "We knew that if we could take it deep, then one over of 20-25 runs could swing it our way."
At the post-match presentation, Russell said: "We backed our strength," alluding to the eight boundaries the pair struck in the arc between deep midwicket and long-on. "We are two strong guys and he took the pressure off me. Batting with a guy like that made my job easier."
Yusuf admitted that carrying the match-winner tag did bring its own pressure, especially because it was difficult to be consistent when batting down the order. He expressed gratitude to the team management for showing trust in him and sending him in with more than ten overs to go in the innings.
"It is not easy," Yusuf said. "When you come in with two or three overs to go and you need to hit big shots every ball, you won't have that kind of consistency. But I back myself and, importantly, my team has faith in me. So it is important to have that confidence.
"I thank Jacques Kallis and Simon Katich for trusting me and giving me ten overs to bat. After spending two or three overs at the crease, you get into the zone and things become easier. So I am very grateful to them for having faith in me and giving me that opportunity."
Yusuf and Russell's return to form coincided with Manish Pandey's return from chicken pox, providing another boost to the Knight Riders middle order. Yusuf said that Knight Riders were now "ready for any situation".
"The batsmen batting in the middle and lower order feel the pressure of not getting much opportunity," Yusuf said. "But a good thing for us is now everyone is clicking. We are a confident unit now."
Yusuf also lauded Knight Riders captain Gautam Gambhir for backing his players and cited the case of Piyush Chawla as an example. The legspinner leaked 24 runs in his first two overs, but Gambhir persisted and gave him an extended spell. Chawla rewarded his captain's faith by having KL Rahul caught at sweeper cover with his first ball of the third over. Chawla then dismissed AB de Villiers for 4 in his last over to finish with figures of 2 for 32.
"Gambhir is a very good captain and he believes in and backs his players under any situation," Yusuf said. "If you noticed today, Piyush gave away some runs early on in his first two overs, but Gambhir trusted him and gave him the ball again. And see, he picked up wickets later on. It is important for us players that your captain backs you all the time."
Deivarayan Muthu is a sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo