KKR's rain-riddled angst washed away by captain and colt
For over three hours, Kolkata Knight Riders were on edge. A thunderstorm in Bengaluru threatened to have them packing up and boarding the first flight out on Thursday morning, instead of staying on for the second qualifier. Players and members of their support staff kept pacing up and down the stairs to check the intensity of the rain. Nathan Coulter-Nile, who spent large parts of the last two weeks recovering from concussion and headaches, had played a key role in restricting Sunrisers Hyderabad to 128. To go out now would be a bitter pill to swallow.
Understandably, the players were by themselves, quietly huddled inside the cozy comforts of the dressing room, not sure if their botched chase in the final league game against Mumbai Indians, where they needed 25 off the last three overs, would come back to haunt them. Finishing a point ahead of Sunrisers could have left them sipping a hot cup of tea on the rainy night, probably grooving to the DJ beats along with their celebrity owner Shah Rukh Khan. Now, it all seemed like torture. All they had played for during the course of the last 40 days now hinged on Chinnaswamy's revamped drainage and playing conditions being stretched by two hours for the playoffs.
At the other end, Sunrisers were calm and comfortable as they watched the rain hammer down; they wouldn't have much to worry about if it continued to stay that way. The forecast was for more rain. But if there's one thing you don't trust in Bengaluru, apart from light-traffic notifications, it is any rain prediction. The 15,000 odd fans present, alternating between chants of "K-K-R!", "S-R-K!" and, quite inexplicably, "Are-Ceee-Bee!", remained patient. Nearly two hours after the scheduled start of the second innings, there was a glimmer of hope.
The covers were being peeled off and the revamped drainage was at work. Resumption wasn't far off. A full chase was on. But just as they were set to resume, the rain returned to tease KKR some more. The players retreated to a game of box cricket inside the change-rooms. They did anything that could put their restless legs to work. Sitting around wasn't an option.
As the clock ticked past the point where the game was certain to be reduced, Sunrisers, sensing they now had no option but to defend a revised score, brought out a bucket full of wet balls. Bowler after bowler rolled his arm over to get acclimatised. After a short wait to know the target they were to defend, it was finally conveyed to them that it would be 48. Six overs. Twenty-four minutes to determine if the defending champions would spend two more days in Bengaluru and earn the right to play Mumbai Indians in another elimination shootout.
Even on a tacky surface where the ball was gripping, as has been the norm at Chinnaswamy this season, it wasn't a stiff target. But Knight Riders came out and made it look like an arduous task. Chris Lynn allayed nerves by slashing his first ball off the tournament's best bowler - Bhuvneshwar Kumar - for six. But he fell next ball to a yorker-length delivery. Knight Riders were one down in the very first over.
Yusuf Pathan was sent in at No. 3 with desperation writ large on his face. After attempting a mistimed pull, he committed hara-kiri, taking off for a run blindly. By the time he turned back, Bhuvneshwar had flicked the ball back onto the stumps in his followthrough. Knight Riders, two down.
Now the crowd was behind local boy Robin Uthappa, but in trying to play to the gallery, he pulled one straight to the deep-square leg fielder. As he walked off, he did well to not make eye contact with his captain Gautam Gambhir, fuming at what he'd just seen. Knight Riders, three down - for 12, seven balls into the chase.
Now, it was Ishank Jaggi's turn. For two months, he'd carried drinks. In his career, he had only played five IPL matches, the last of them with Deccan Chargers in 2012. Until the eve of the game, he had no inkling that an opportunity would come his way in a knockout game. He'd nearly seen the team's net session finish and was winding up when he got a tap, asking him to pad up. He was the last man to have a hit. Manish Pandey's rib injury meant an opening, an opportunity to feature in an IPL XI for the first time in five years, an opportunity to steer a tense chase with his captain.
At the domestic T20 tournament, the Syed Mushtaq Ali Trophy, earlier this year, he left a lasting impression on Gambhir by hitting three fours and six sixes for East Zone. The captain ensured his name was a forced into the IPL auction pool at the last moment. Here, there wasn't enough time to impress the man responsible for picking him, but he had to remain calm nevertheless. He got right behind the line first ball to play a proper back-foot defence. Gambhir walked across to punch his gloves at the end of the over. Perhaps never before had Gambhir celebrated a glorious back-foot defence this wildly.
Then, realising the need to take the chase upon himself, Gambhir showed smarts to pick his spots. When there was width outside off, he steered the ball behind point. If it was short, he was happy to use the pace and pull or hook. In doing so, he reeled off crucial boundaries.Off in-form legspinner Rashid Khan, he was beaten twice, but showed why he is regarded one of the best players of spin, driving inside-out.
The target was now into single digits. Jaggi, at his end, held his shape, held his composure, and hit the winning runs with four balls to spare. Gambhir pumped his fists and let out a roar. It was the roar of an angry man who had seen his side nearly wilt yet again. Then came the rare smile and the satisfaction of a win that could put them in a position to lift their third IPL crown.
Shashank Kishore is a senior sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo