Jayawardene ton breaks Punjab's losing run
There were two captivating innings of contrasting styles on show at the Eden Gardens and, eventually, it was the precision of Mahela Jayawardene's graceful strokes that helped Kings XI Punjab overcome the challenge set by Chris Gayle's exhibition of bottom-handed power-hitting. Jayawardene started in high gear and kept the accelerator floored all the way to his first Twenty20 century; his partnership with Sri Lankan team-mate Kumar Sangakkara ensured Punjab's string of deplorable performances this season ended with a chase that was always several steps ahead of the asking-rate.
While this victory did little for Punjab's semi-final chances - they need to win five more in a row and then pray - it damaged Kolkata Knight Riders' campaign. Had they won, they would have climbed to fourth in the league after nine games, ahead of Chennai Super Kings, but instead they remained fifth, just above the Rajasthan Royals. Such a helpless defence of a formidable target would have been far removed from the expectations of a noisy crowd, high on adrenalin after Gayle had blitzed 88 off 42 balls during an innings that contained a 33-run over, the costliest of the IPL.
It began poorly for the hosts, with Murali Kartik fumbling the first ball of the chase at point and allowing a single, which brought Jayawardene on strike. He got on his toes as Shane Bond delivered, rode the bounce, and cut his first ball to boundary. Jayawardene, who had asked to open because Shaun Marsh was injured, continued to thread cuts through the off side, against Bond and Jaidev Unadkat, and also found the long-off boundary with a graceful straight drive. His first leg-side boundary was a lofted six off Unadkat in the fourth over. He lost his opening partner Manvinder Bisla, who biffed few boundaries as well, in the fifth over to an arm ball from Kartik, but his intensity and strike-rate did not relent.
In the final over of the Powerplay, Jayawardene made room and square-drove Gayle for four, stayed back and pulled over short fine leg, and lofted the last ball back over the bowler's head for six. Punjab scored 17 runs off the over and were 69 for 1 after six. There was rain in the air and Duckworth-Lewis equations on players' minds. If the game ended there, Punjab were ahead. It would stay that way.
Sangakkara's contribution was vital too, for his 38 off 22 balls eased the pressure on Jayawardene, who had reached his half-century off 26 balls. Sangakkara took on Angelo Mathews in his first over, charging to loft over mid-on for four before clearing the straight boundary in his second.
Punjab had raced to 105 for 1 after 9.5 overs when Jayawardene gave Kolkata a chance, spooning Mathews to short third man. He was on 51, Punjab needed 95 off 61 balls, but Kartik dropped the opportunity. He was made to regret it immediately. Jayawardene hit three fours in the next over, bowled by Ajit Agarkar, and Punjab continued to whittle down the target rapidly. The identity of the bowler didn't matter, for Jayawardene found the boundary at will, and neither did Sangakkara's dismissal with the score on 149. They had added 98 off 8.5 overs.
Yuvraj Singh, smarting from the criticism heaped on him by the media, ensured there was no choke, clouting 33 off 16 balls. He was applauding Jayawardene's century, off 55 balls, even before they completed the run that got him there. The match ended with successive boundaries from Jayawardene - one helped past fine leg, the other pulled in front of midwicket - off the first two balls of the 19th over, but the Eden Gardens faithful had been silenced well before that.
Unlike Punjab's chase, which was fuelled by consistently expensive overs, Kolkata's innings relied on Gayle awakening from a run-a-ball torpor to reach 200. He had faced only 24 balls in the first half of the innings and scored only 24, with no sixes. Ramesh Powar, the offspinner, had restricted him by bowling into his pads from over the wicket, varying his pace and trajectory. Gayle had tried to play the sweep but his timing wasn't fluent.
Finally, in the 11th over, Gayle stirred. Powar had bowled 3.5 overs for 17 runs, when Gayle advanced to his final ball and muscled it over the long-on boundary. Powar finished with 0 for 23 off four overs; his team-mates were not going to be as fortunate.
Kolkata were 89 for 1 when Bopara came on to bowl the 13th, and carnage was around the corner. Manoj Tiwary rotated the strike with a single off the first delivery, and Gayle heaved the second and third over the midwicket and long-on boundary, losing the ball in the construction rubble. He had sped to 50 off 30 balls, scoring 26 off his last six balls, and more was to follow. For the fourth ball, Gayle created some room, stayed low and launched it flat over the cover boundary. The fifth was lost in the long-on rubble again. Bopara, reeling from four consecutive sixes, let slip a wide which beat the wicketkeeper too. At the end of the over, Kolkata were 122 for 1, and Gayle was on 62 off 32.
Gayle then skied a mis-hit off Chawla. The bowler wanted to take the catch himself and made a mess of it, much to Ganguly's mirth in the dug out. Jayawardene, however, ensured that Ganguly would not be the last one laughing on the night.
George Binoy is a senior sub-editor at Cricinfo