McCullum and Hodge gun down Chennai
Kolkata Knight Riders, powered by fifties from Brendon McCullum and Brad Hodge, staged one of the most thrilling chases in the tournament and showed why the bottom-placed team may still prove to be the king-makers in this crucial last phase of the league games. Chennai Super Kings, who looked set to seal a semi-final spot with their mammoth total batting first, will now have to put the celebrations on hold.
The run-chase owed its success to three partnerships: the opening stand totally dominated by McCullum, his association with Hodge, where he took charge initially before letting his partner step up, and Hodge's match-winning association with Wriddhiman Saha, whose calm presence combined well with the timely acceleration to stun Chennai.
The return of the seamers at the death heralded a decisive shift in the game as Hodge found an unlikely foil in Saha, who smote a six and a four in the 17th over from L Balaji that went for 14. The next over from Albie Morkel bled 13, with Hodge collecting two fours, one slapped back past the bowler and the other swung behind square leg.
With Chennai short of options, it was hoped that Balaji would be able to hit the blockhole but he was guilty of the same slip-up that cost Kolkata their previous two games. He gifted Hodge length balls, two of which were struck clean and straight over long-off, and a generous full toss to Saha off the final ball, who duly obliged to smack it over midwicket to bring it down to six off the last over. Suresh Raina tried his best, but despite an attacking field and a dot ball first up, the wave was against him. Hodge and Saha stole singles off the second and third deliveries, a tight run to cover on the fourth, before a swat to long-on with a deep enough Jacob Oram allowed them to scamper back for the second and level the scores. With the field brought up, an incredibly calm Saha chipped Raina over cover to seal a comeback win.
McCullum threatened to wrest the game with his blistering innings, displaying the same destructive batting that was on view in the first match of the IPL's inaugural version. His dominant innings today was as much a reflection on his brilliance as the lack of support from the other end, especially in the initial stages.
McCullum announced his intent from the first over, slashing one past slip, and clipping Morkel past square leg. Keeping him off strike became Chennai's immediate objective and Sourav Ganguly made their job far simpler, struggling to get bat on ball, a stark contrast to McCullum's free flow. McCullum feasted on Morkel, smashing him for 16 in the third over, while Ganguly was made to look like an irritable fly-swatter by Sudeep Tyagi. He was eventually put out of his misery, chopping one on from Muttiah Muralitharan, though Chennai, in hindsight, would have wished he had continued.
The dismissal did not deter McCullum; the run-chase received a massive boost in Tyagi's next over, as Chennai were suddenly made to grapple with the possibility of an upset. Tyagi was clattered for four consecutive fours - two over cover, one through fine leg and the other over midwicket - before gifting a freebie that was promptly dispatched into the stands. Kolkata had made 56 in the powerplay of which 50 had come off McCullum's blade.
Hodge has been Kolkata's best batsman in the tournament, and adapted to his subordinate role superbly, allowing McCullum the bulk of the strike, something his predecessor had appallingly failed to do. The scoring dipped with Murali and Shadab Jakati doing their utmost to restrain Kolkata, but McCullum's determination to put the horror of his team's run behind him bode ominously for Chennai. If the Powerplay was lit up by his brute force, his handling of spin exhibited his subtle touch, as he opened the face to Murali's doosra, chopped him through point and shared the floor with Hodge, who cut loose himself, thumping Jakati for two sixes.
McCullum survived a chance on 66, dropped by Oram, who palmed a catch over the ropes at long-on, leaving Chennai with a sense of foreboding as the match slipped away. However, the lapse did not prove too costly, as Jakati just managed to squeeze one through his attempted swipe to just kiss the offstump. When the in-form David Hussey was run out seven balls later, Chennai had fought back to steal the advantage which seemed to hinge on the fortunes of one batsman, but as they were to find out, it wasn't quite so simple.
Chennai were missing Matthew Hayden, their most prolific batsman this season, but his team-mates made up for that by posting a formidable score. The effort owed to a calculated performance by Raina and an equally shrewd effort by MS Dhoni, who built on a solid opening stand to put Kolkata Knight Riders under pressure.
Raina shrugged off a relative slide in form - he had managed just 48 in his previous three innings - to quickly slip into his natural mode of play, using the flicks, dabs and cuts that characterize his batting with relentless frequency and opened up in timely fashion to retain the tempo set by the openers. Dhoni, meanwhile, proved again that he remains Chennai's best middle-order batsman. He had been involved in four 50-plus stands before this, and added another to his tally, mixing up his raw power and rotating the strike. The innings was set up by an admirable display by the openers Parthiv Patel and George Bailey who put together a busy stand of 59, attacking the seamers early on and retaining the momentum once the spinners came on, scoring a boundary virtually every over amid a spate of singles and twos which never allowed the bowlers to settle into a rhythm.
However, their efforts were in vain as McCullum's blistering knock and Hodge's reliability produced an upset which has made Chennai's hold on the No.2 spot in the points table a little shaky.
Siddhartha Talya is an editorial assistant at Cricinfo