First knight ends the nightmare
After 27 days of trial and error, folly and failure, Kolkata Knight Riders finally won another match - and the crowd's response was fitting. Not often in this IPL has the South African crowd found a team to support so wholeheartedly. Not often have the people in the stadium bar been so noisy. And not often has a winning shot been greeted with such real delight. In a tournament essentially of the displaced, played in front of people who don't have enough of a connect to experience the heartburn, that bitter-sweet moment of despair, that sports fans experience, the Knight Riders gave the Centurion crowd a chance to participate and, eventually, celebrate.
Finally, the Knight Riders' cheergirls had a reason to dance; finally, they found meaningful moments to sway about. Finally Brendon McCullum, their haunted, hunted captain, who for 27 days experienced loss, hostility, a loss of form and even sympathy, got the taste of victory.
He deserved it because he led from the front. In truth, it was a huge target and he had no option but to go from the start. There was no time to push around, settle down and find himself. It could have ended even before it started. A swinging delivery outside off had McCullum flash his bat and find the edge. The ball went past the overstretched palms of the slip. It was the break he needed, the kind of break that had gone against him in almost every match so far. He responded with a stunning flat six over extra cover. But the next ball was the real test. Albie Morkel tried to york him and, as he backed away, not only did he get bat to ball but also found the strength and the skill to guide it to the straight boundary. Then he broke free and the rest was vintage McCullum, the imposter making way for the real deal.
Everyone knows his strength: the sheer audacity to keep going for his shots and the skill to successfully complete many of them. Sometimes it works, often it doesn't. Tonight was his night. It helped that the Chennai bowlers suddenly started to bowl as though they were teammates at nets. Full tosses and short ones were the staple diet. Sudeep Tyagi, who has bowled so well in this tournament, disintegrated as McCullum plundered 22 runs off him in the sixth over. The score read 56 for 1, McCullum scoring 51 of those. There were his typical pulls, flat-batted heaves, the horizontal shots and the lofted ones but his shot of the night, apart from the boundary off the near-yorker, was a lovely late glide off Muralitharan. It was the one that went with the arm. McCullum's adrenalin must have reached overflow by then yet he read the ball, waited for it on the front foot and, as the ball almost passed him, opened the bat-face and ran it down for a boundary. It was the sort of calm and composure that had eluded his bowlers and batsmen alike through much of this tournament.
No wonder then that his dismissal, bowled by Shadab Jakati, was greeted with groans from the crowd. For a moment, before the screen confirmed the outcome, there was some doubt over whether the ball had hit the stumps or whether Dhoni had broken it with his gloves. The red light flashed and so, it seemed, would the Knight Riders' chances. In the bar there was a moment of despair before the patrons gathered themselves and applauded McCullum off.
On any other day this would have been the match-turning moment but today McCullum's team-mates completed the job. Brad Hodge, who has had a fine tournament, is the sort of player whose big hits go in the conventional zones. Could he do it today? He hit Balaji for two sixes in the 19th over - one over long-off and the other over the sightscreen to settle the issue. As his teammates came rushing on to embrace him, only the most hard-bitten cynic would point out it was a meaningless win in the context of the points table. On the contrary, it was the most meaningful win for this beleagured team. It was so special that, much after it was all over, the barman gave whoever had stayed back a round on the house.
Sriram Veera is a staff writer at Cricinfo