A graceful Sachin Tendulkar fifty was the highlight of Mumbai Indians' convincing seven-wicket win, which was set up by the bowlers who stuck to a strategy and restricted Kolkata Knight Riders to an underwhelming score at the Brabourne Stadium. Chris Gayle boosted Kolkata with a steady fifty, but the visitors will look back at the night and feel they pushed the pedal too late, despite keeping so many wickets in hand.
This IPL has revealed effective strategies used by teams to keep the batsmen in check. The tactic of bowling short at the body has worked well for Royal Challengers Bangalore, and today, Mumbai persisted with firing yorkers on the leg stump, cramping the batsmen for room. It was best highlighted in a passage of play in the Kolkata innings where they batted 37 balls without a boundary. Sixty-two off the last six overs was an improvement, but about 15-20 runs short.
The Mumbai openers began the chase in fifth gear by racing to 24 off two overs, all off boundaries. Shikhar Dhawan dented Shane Bond's confidence by smashing three boundaries off the first over, while Tendulkar gave Ishant Sharma a similar nightmare by fetching three more fours off the second, all crisply driven down the ground off the front foot.
It was as if Tendulkar was on a mission to hit Ishant out of the attack and further expose his poor form in limited-overs cricket. He was punished for bowling length to Tendulkar, punched through extra cover and pulled twice to bring up three consecutive boundaries. A flick for four past midwicket off Chris Gayle brought up Mumbai's fifty in just 26 balls, the fastest in IPL 3. The Kolkata seamers, especially Ishant, would have done well to learn from their Mumbai counterparts who varied their pace a lot more.
Spin was the only way to put the batsmen under pressure and when Ganguly introduced Murali Kartik, it immediately yielded a wicket. It dented the run rate as well as Mumbai scored only 19 off the next four overs. It was an opportunity for Kolkata to attack more and push for wickets but the bowlers couldn't sustain the pressure long enough. Saurabh Tiwary ensured Mumbai didn't lose their grip on the game by muscling Angelo Mathews over long-on and then smacking Gayle for two powerful fours down the ground.
Mumbai had the safety net of Tendulkar and even the dismissal of Tiwary against the run of play - caught brilliantly by Ganguly falling backwards - didn't shift the momentum. Tendulkar launched another assault on Ishant, bringing up his fifty with a flick over midwicket, and a cameo by R Sathish helped close out the match out in the penultimate over.
Mumbai's victory also highlighted the gulf in the quality of the bowling attacks. Suffocating Gayle is one of the toughest jobs in world cricket today but the experienced Mumbai bowlers found a way out - cramp him for width and fire it on the blockhole. It was also unusual seeing him being outscored by Sourav Ganguly, who's yet to find his feet in the game's most abridged format.
Mumbai kept firing in the fuller deliveries, varying their pace effectively to force Gayle and Ganguly to check their shots and drill the ball down the ground for singles. Kolkata were also guilty of not dispatching full tosses, hitting them straight to the fielders. They managed only ten fours within the first 15 overs. Mumbai in contrast, scored 16 in the same period.
Even the spinners stuck to the same plan. Harbhajan bowled over the wicket to the left-handers and adopted a flatter trajectory, firing it in before they could get under the bounce to scoop it away. A frustrated Ganguly tried to slog when he flighted one up, and lost his middle stump.
The promotion of Owais Shah, a lesson learnt from the previous game, infused some life and Gayle also started gaining in confidence. Shah's first boundary was a thick outside edge which flew to third man and his flick off Lasith Malinga to midwicket was the shot of the innings. Gayle then brought up his subdued fifty with consecutive boundaries. It was the only period which Kolkata had some semblance of command, as they added some respectability to the total. The bowling, though, let them down.