Shoaib Akhtar made a dramatic IPL debut, taking four wickets in a blistering new-ball spell to consign the Delhi Daredevils to their fourth straight defeat. In a match crucial to the scramble for a semi-final place, the Kolkata Knight Riders overcame a batting failure, posting only 133, thanks to Shoaib and an inspired fielding effort. They eventually vindicated captain Sourav Ganguly's decision to bat first, pulling off a 23-run win for their third successive triumph.
Kolkata went in to field defending a small total and needing a huge performance from their debutant. Shoaib had played only one match in the last five months but showed no sign of rust as he removed the dangerous Virender Sehwag for a golden duck in the first over. There was a hint of outswing and Sehwag's footwork-free waft edged the ball behind to Wriddhiman Saha.
The Eden Gardens crowd, quiet after Kolkata's poor batting performance, regained its voice. Gautam Gambhir, the tournament's leading run-scorer, lashed a couple of boundaries off Ishant Sharma before becoming Shoaib's second victim. A short and wide delivery was cut straight to David Hussey at point and Shoaib set off on his trademark arm-outstretched airplane celebration.
An inside-edge saved AB de Villiers on the first delivery off Shoaib's third over but de Villiers fell next ball as he top-edged a bouncer to square leg. Manoj Tiwary fell in the following ball, trapped lbw, and though Tillakaratne Dilshan prevented the hat-trick, Delhi were reeling at 32 for 4. Shoaib, playing after his five-year ban was suspended for one month, finished with outstanding figures of 3-0-11-4.
His passion seemed infectious; three overs later Ashok Dinda uprooted Shikhar Dhawan's off stump. Dilshan, though, was unflustered by the fall of wickets and kept going for his shots. As he raced along to 25 with the help of five boundaries, the required rate for the last nine overs was a gettable 7.5. However, his run out while trying to steal a quick single dealt Delhi a severe blow.
All the while the atmosphere kept getting noisier, with franchise owner Shah Rukh Khan acting as cheerleader and Kolkata's anthem "korbo, lorbo, jitbo re" booming through the loudspeakers. Amit Mishra and Farveez Maharoof gave them some anxious moments with a fighting 34-run stand but a poor piece of running from Maharoof snuffed out Delhi's hopes - after gloving a short ball to the leg side, he neither got between the throw and the stumps nor ran in a straight line towards the non-striker's end and was caught inches short. With Kolkata in the ascendancy, Laxmi Ratan Shukla was given an over and he took the remaining three wickets to seal the victory as the crowd erupted.
Earlier, Glenn McGrath was typically miserly with the new ball and Pradeep Sangwan also didn't offer too many loose balls as Kolkata struggled to inject some momentum. Aakash Chopra's troubles with the bat continued and he managed only 13, despite being reprieved early on by Gautam Gambhir at wide slip.
His dismissal was greeted with a roar by the crowd as local boy Ganguly strode out. They had more to cheer as he imperiously slammed his second ball, a free hit, over the bowler's head for six, but were silenced two deliveries later when he was bowled by Yo Mahesh after his attempted pull failed to make contact with the ball.
With Kolkata at 47 for 2 after seven, Salman Butt and David Hussey tried to rebuild and while they strung together a 40-run stand, there were unable to provide the acceleration the innings desperately needed. Besides Butt's two powerful drives through cover off Yo Mahesh, there weren't too many boundaries and the runs came mainly in the form of singles. Just as they were giving Kolkata a platform from which they could take off, Butt perished for 48, slicing a Mahesh delivery to McGrath at mid-off.
Hussey then had to play his by-now-familiar role of trying to rescue Kolkata from the top-order's failings. He is the world's leading six-hitter in Twenty20s but he failed to provide the necessary fireworks; there were a couple of huge sixes on the leg side but Hussey fell attempting another for a run-a-ball 31, lobbing a catch to midwicket.
However, Shoaib's heroics helped Kolkata defend the paltry total and consolidate their fourth spot. Delhi, meanwhile, again demonstrated their inability to win when the top order fails and now less than two weeks after being in the top spot, they face an uphill battle to make the semi-finals.