Karn Sharma goes from replacement to main man
After ferrying drinks in the first half of Mumbai Indians' campaign, and later being a fill-in for the injured Krunal Pandya, legspinner Karn Sharma took the more experienced Harbhajan Singh's spot on Friday night and put his side in the IPL final.
He did so in style, knocking the stuffing out of the Kolkata Knight Riders top and middle order in the second Qualifier with career-best IPL returns of 4 for 16.
Karn's spell was founded on meticulous planning and excellent execution. He bowled 12 of his 25 balls on the stumps for three wickets, including that of Sunil Narine and KKR captain Gautam Gambhir.
Karn was called to bowl the fifth over, and he started with a flat legbreak, which thudded into Narine's pad. The next ball was fired on leg stump as well, and Narine had another crack, but only managed a leg bye. There are many ways to skin a cat; one is through denial. The denial of swinging room cut off Narine's most productive region - mid-off - and forced him to jump down the track and have an almighty leg-side slog at a googly. Karn, though, had shortened his length and angled the line further away from the left-hander. Parthiv Patel took the bails off.
"T20 is all about momentum," Karn said after the game. "We started well in the first six overs … for Narine we tried to bowl at the stumps. He is a very good hitter straight. We have different plans for different batsmen. That is what I did."
In his next over, Karn dismissed Gambhir and Colin de Grandhomme to leave KKR on the ropes at 31 for 5 after seven overs. He had Gambhir holing out to deep midwicket with a slower legbreak, and with the next ball he hit de Grandhomme's back pad with a fast, fizzing wrong'un. Karn bowls off just a couple of steps, but his quick-arm action makes it difficult to pick the variation.
Karn conceded three runs in the ninth over, but was taken out of the attack by his captain Rohit Sharma to keep one over for later, and KKR mounted a recovery through a 56-run partnership between Suryakumar Yadav and Ishank Jaggi. Krunal was taken for back-to-back boundaries by Suryakumar, Mitchell Johnson was crunched through extra cover, and even Lasith Malinga was whipped with a flourish by Jaggi.
Rohit turned to Karn in the 15th, and the legspinner delivered again. Seeing Jaggi venture down the track, Karn speared it flat, and ensured the batsmen did not get under the ball. The batsman skied a loft into the hands of long-on. KKR were 88 for 6 by the end of the 15th over and there was no way back for them.
Popular pre-match opinion was that there would be no place for Karn in the second Qualifier. Against Rising Pune Supergiant in the first Qualifier, Karn was picked over Harbhajan perhaps because their cross-expressway neighbours had 10 right-hand batsmen.
KKR, on the other hand, had three left-hand batsmen, including two at the top, which made a case for Harbhajan's return. The offspinner had the second-best economy rate (6.21) among spinners who have bowled at least 50 balls to left-hand batsmen this season.
In fact, there had been no place for Karn in Mumbai's first seven games of the season. An injury to Krunal provided the opening and the legspinner impressed in his first game, against Rising Pune, dismissing openers Ajinkya Rahane and Rahul Tripathi despite conceding 39 runs in four overs. In all, he had taken nine wickets in seven matches before the second Qualifier.
"Being in and out of the team has been good for me," Karn said. "I am just working hard when I am not playing. The main motivation is when I get a game I need to perform for the team. That's more important."
The replacement man has now become the main man and has given Mumbai a shot at moving past KKR and Chennai Super Kings for a record third IPL title. Standing in their way are Rising Pune, who have beaten Mumbai three times in three meetings this season. Karn doesn't think Mumbai are at a disadvantage, though.
"We are fully prepared and we will win the finals," he confidently said. "[Three out of three losses] is in past."
Deivarayan Muthu is a sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo