A disciplined performance with the ball, followed by a counterattacking blitz from Yusuf Pathan, sealed a six-wicket win at Eden Gardens for the Rajasthan Royals who, with 18 points from 11 matches, become the first team to seal a spot in the semi-finals. At the toss, Shane Warne had said his intention was to knock out the Kolkata Knight Riders and the loss leaves the home side nearly out of the running for a semi-final place.
Rajasthan were on top for most of the game, barring a spell in the chase when wickets fell in a flurry. Warne decided to stick with his tried-and-tested policy of fielding first, with the pitch offering assistance to the bowlers. They kept Kolkata on a leash, and a regular stream of wickets ensured the home side could manage only 147.
Kolkata stayed in the hunt by picking up four wickets, which included a double-wicket maiden from Umar Gul. Warne's experiment to send in Sohail Tanvir at No. 3 didn't come off and Saha's acrobatic one-handed take to get rid of Graeme Smith continued the fightback. Watson seemed to be in the mood when he deftly nudged Sourav Ganguly past short third man but he was soon to be bowled trying to heave an inswinger across the line.
But Kolkata were left clueless against what came next. Enter Yusuf Pathan, whose hand-eye coordination and powerful strokes quickly took the game away. Gul had troubled the batsmen but Yusuf wasn't to be daunted. He steered a full toss past midwicket, though he was lucky an inside-edge the next ball missed the stumps.
He then took a liking to Ganguly, and the whole of Kolkata was silenced as the local hero was carted for huge sixes in the midwicket region off consecutive deliveries. Runs came at ease as Kolkata's bowlers and fielders failed to break the partnership.
Kaif, who had been dominated by his partner, took a hat-trick of fours off Ashok Dinda, in a phase where he showed his ability to clear the infield. With Yusuf blazing away at the other end, Kaif didn't have to take any risks. He placed the ball around for the singles and twos, and Kolkata were guilty of failing to effect the run-out chances offered to them.
Yusuf, fittingly, sealed the game in the 17th over from Gul: the first ball was lofted over extra cover, the next through midwicket, and he signed off by sending the ball sailing over square leg for six. He has the fastest fifty in the tournament, off 21 balls, and his 48 off 18 today was just one hit away from breaking that mark.
It required only one good partnership to overhaul the modest total, one which had been set up by accurate bowling and shrewd captaincy. Warne made innovative bowling changes, trying to unsettle the batsmen by rotating his fast bowlers for each of the first six overs. For their part, the faster bowlers varied their deliveries, changing their length and pace to keep the batsmen on their toes. Tanvir, Munaf Patel and Shane Watson kept the batsmen in check during the Powerplay, conceding just 32. Munaf bowled a maiden first up, snapping Mohammad Hafeez.
Salman Butt, fresh from his 73 against Chennai Super Kings, attempted to give the innings a push by striking a few fours, including a superb cover drive on one knee off Munaf - before falling leg before as he moved across his stumps. Ganguly, though, struggled for fluency: he needed seven balls to get off the mark and scored his first boundary to third man just when Warne played mind games by bringing the fielder in the 30-yard circle. The battle between the two captains continued when Warne brought himself on. Warne had conceded only one off his first over but Ganguly broke the shackles by launching Warne over square leg in his second.
The regular loss of wickets from then on hampered Kolkata. A frustrated David Hussey was bowled as he tried to charge Yusuf, while Ganguly later hit Siddharth Trivedi straight into the hands of long-on. However, Kolkata did well to go from 59 for 2 after ten overs to 147 in 20, largely due to Debabrata Das's sparkling 31 off 20 balls.
He announced his arrival with a dead-straight six off Warne, and later dispatched Pathan over midwicket. Laxmi Ratan Shukla and the batsmen to follow also chipped in quick runs, and despite Kolkata losing wickets regularly, the big hits helped them reach close to 150. It appeared challenging until Yusuf began his mighty blast.