Praveen swings into late-season groove
Can a match be decided in the first six overs in a Twenty20 with the ball? It is not common. Usually it is the assaults by the bat - the very first IPL innings by Brendon McCullum, Suresh Raina's brutality in the 2014 playoffs, or Chris Gayle during his 175 not out. Rarely does a performance by a bowler or a bowling unit spring to mind straightaway.
But on Sunday evening, one could sense Gujarat Lions had already won the battle decisively when they had Kolkata Knight Riders gasping at 24 for 4. That early strangulation was imparted through swing by the expert hands of Uttar Pradesh and one-time India fast bowler Praveen Kumar.
Actually, fast is not an appropriate term to describe Praveen's bowling. Delivering speeds varying mostly between 125-130 kph, Praveen is more medium-fast than fast. But it is not pace that made Praveen, it is his gifted swing, tales of which have been told with admiration by many a young Uttar Pradesh youngster in the dressing rooms of Indian cricket. It is the same swing that today made an early presence and helped the Lions make a telling statement.
After his very first ball against Gautam Gambhir, Knight Riders best batsman this season, Praveen folded both his hands behind his head as his plan had nearly worked out. Bowling close to the stumps, Praveen delivered an inswinger that swerved into Gambhir's legs, but the ball pitched on the leg stump and moved away, allowing Gambhir to glance it safely. Two balls later Gambhir was clueless to the ball that pitched outside off stump and moved in.
Having watched Dhawal Kullkarni also get exaggerated swing from the other end, Gambhir opted to stand a yard outside his crease when Praveen returned for his second over. Praveen was attentive to Gambhir's plan to negate the swing by standing outside the crease. But Praveen once again opted for the inswing, once again Gambhir glanced, but this time he did not connect, instead it deflected off his thigh guard onto his stumps.
Manish Pandey was greeted by a 126 kph delivery which pitched back of a length. The batsman pushed to the leg side. Next ball Praveen held the seam upright, pitched fuller and completely mesmerised Pandey. Dancing in the air, gleaming under the lights, the ball swung away late, kissing the outside edge of Pandey's bat en route to Dinesh Karthik's gloves.
With the profusion of grey hair in his stubble, Praveen looks like he is in his mid-30s. Incidentally, he is only 29 years old. Regardless of his age, the one thing that cannot be disputed are Praveen's tricks with the ball in hand. With abundant experience in the domestic cricket scene, Praveen is well-versed with most Indian batsmen's weaknesses.
Suryakumar Yadav does not like to be pushed into a corner usually. He is a confident batsman and likes to play his shots from the moment he arrives at the crease. However the only thing Yadav ended up doing when facing Praveen was make faces, widen his eyes and wonder how the hell he was going to get away safe to the other end.
Bowling his third over in a row, Praveen swung the ball late into Yadav's legs, noticing the batsman's intention to move forward. A leg before appeal was then turned down after Yadav was hit high on the pad against a delivery moving away. Next ball, Praveen would have hit the base of Yadav's middle stump had the batsman not brought down his bat in the nick of time to stop the fuller length delivery that bent in to the batsman, once again late.
A maiden was a result, Praveen's 13th in all IPL editions, the most by any bowler. In the first seven matches of this IPL, Praveen had gone wicketless while giving away 164 runs. In the last four matches, he has taken five wickets at an average of 18.40.
The pressure he built along with Kulkarni at the other end was demoralising for the Knight Riders, who were playing in front of a capacity crowd at Eden Gardens. Although Yusuf Pathan and Shakib Al Hasan resurrected the Knight Riders with a IPL-record 134-run unbeaten fifth-wicket partnership, it was more of a face-saving exercise. The Knight Riders were well aware that they were short by at least 20-25 runs, which they were denied in the powerplay.
Today's performance, 4-1-19-2, was only Praveen's second Man-of-the-Match award in 108 IPL matches, with the previous one coming in 2008. A moody character, Praveen can easily get swayed on the field, but of late he has been trying to rein in his emotions. While accepting the award, Praveen said that the responsibility given to him was to bowl the first two overs in the powerplay and then return at death to finish his quota, which spurred him on.
A man of very few words away from the field, Praveen would only say "bas, chal rahan hain" (It's going all right) when asked to explain whether swing was the king for a bowler like him. He might not say it, but there are not many who swing it like Praveen in Indian cricket.
Nagraj Gollapudi is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo