Rajasthan Royals v Kolkata Knight Riders, IPL, Durban

Not the stuff of champions

It was a strange game that saw the defending champions knocked out in an uncharaceteristic fashion. A sense of claustrophobia was in the air. The future strangled Rajasthan; the past threatened to haul in Kolkata

Sriram Veera in Durban

May 20, 2009

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Swapnil Asnodkar is run out, Kolkata Knight Riders v Rajasthan Royals, IPL, Durban, May 20, 2009
Rajasthan Royals hadn't lost a close game so far but the batting choked today under pressure © Associated Press
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Yusuf Pathan had just ran himself out and the big screen caught Shane Warne in a private moment of despair. He shook his head and stared at a distance, at nothing in particular. It was a image that one saw again at the end as Laxmi Shukla staged a brilliant match-winning partnership with Ajit Agarkar.

It was a strange game that saw the defending champions knocked out in an uncharaceteristic fashion. A sense of claustrophobia was in the air. The future strangled Rajasthan; the past threatened to haul in Kolkata. Rajasthan were struggling to stay alive in the tournament while Kolkata were waging a battle against their losing habit.

Until Shukla took control of the situation, the batsmen on either side were seemingly gripped with a sense of fatal attraction to doom. Rajasthan prides itself on winning the tight moments. They hadn't lost a close game so far but the batting choked today under pressure. It's a team that has dazzled the public with their control of nerves in big-pressure situations. Warne built his career on that trait and his boys were magnetically following their Pied Piper.

Pathan had spoken about it earlier: "When you are fielding and the ball comes to you and you are in doubt whether to go for the catch or prevent the boundary, Warne has always urged us to go for the catch." It's that nerveless approach that set apart this team. But it wasn't on evidence today when batting.

Rajasthan's top-order collapsed against Charl Langeveldt but their sorry tale of the day was best captured by their confused running that led to three run-outs. They walked like zombies into danger. Swapnil Asnodkar and Pathan set for singles after tapping the ball to silly point. They saw the bowler rushing past them and the non-striker retreating but they kept hanging on outside far too late. It can happen under pressure. You freeze and at times, move towards disaster knowing fully well what awaits you there. Ditto Tyron Henderson. He and Jadeja strolled across, hoping against hope that there won't be a direct hit. It's the kind of cracking under pressure that we have seen from Kolkata; not Rajasthan.

You expected some one to stay out there and do the job. But no one did. Warne grew more desperate when he came out to bat. Suddenly, they were firing in yorkers and his intended big swings weren't going anywhere; in the end he was just digging them out.

However, they aren't the defending champions by accident. Though they just made 101, Warne tried to lead his team to do the improbable. Kolkata aided him like only they can. At 45 for 6, Rajasthan seemed to have weaved a Houdini act again. And Warne had two overs left. Surely, he would do the job. He tried. In his third over, just after being slog-swept for a six by Shukla, he turned one in from the leg stump to hit Shukla's pad in front of middle. But the decision didn't go his way. He stood there for long, puzzled by the negation. It's another Warne image that we have used to seeing over the years.

A few overs later, he brought himself back with Kolkata needing 27 from 24. It was perfect timing. If he had held himself longer for his last over, it might have been too late. Warne is always there at your throat but he is extremely deadly when he senses some inhibition of mind from the opposition. Agarkar and Shukla didn't give him the taste of blood. Agarkar stepped down the track to ping long-on; Shukla moved outside leg stump to play him with the turn. The over ended and Warne could play no more active role in the game.

As ever, Warne kept running to the bowlers to keep encouraging them. Pathan came over to have a chat about the field placing. Very carefully, very deliberately, Warne kept changing his field. But nothing was working tonight. He turned gloomier by the minute. Naman Ojha, who did a superb stumping earlier to remove Hodge, missed two run-outs. Ravindra Jadeja gave an overthrow at the death. It was out of character for this team and hit them at the worst possible moment.

Sriram Veera is a staff writer at Cricinfo

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