Kolkata Knight Riders showed more character than perhaps the first two seasons put together to survive early blows by veterans Chaminda Vaas and Adam Gilchrist at the start of each innings. First Angelo Mathews and Owais Shah added 130 runs from 31 for 4 to put up a fighting total. Their effort was going in vain with Gilchrist rushing towards the target, but their bowlers picked up their game to take regular wickets and allow Deccan Chargers only 51 runs in the last nine overs. Kolkata scored 58 in their last four.
It was as much Deccan throwing it away as Kolkata pulling it back. Gilchrist, who had been dropped twice on his way to fifty, started the turnaround by pulling Brad Hodge straight to deep square leg. In the next over Herschelle Gibbs holed out to long-off. Two overs later Andrew Symonds went to slog the first delivery he faced from Ishant Sharma and top-edged. Two more overs later Rohit Sharma was fooled by a Mathews slower bouncer, and 99 for 1 had become 128 for 5. All that with the required run-rate never going too much past eight per over.
Kolkata were there to accept the gifts with aggressive field placings and good bowling changes. If bowling Hodge was an inspired move, return spells for Karthik, Langeveldt and Ishant were positive decisions by a captain who knew only wickets could win him the match. The diving saves returned, Ganguly looked charged and Kolkata somehow looked like the team that was going to win even with the required rate reaching the improbable only in the last over.
Thirty-four off 22 balls with only Indian domestic batsmen and the tail to follow was always going to be a tight finish, and Mathews, Laxmi Shukla, Langeveldt and Ishant completed the choke for Deccan with a good mix of yorkers, bouncers and slower ones.
If they had a target that wasn't blown away by the Gilchrist start, it was only thanks to Mathews himself and Shah. Vaas had dutifully adopted the essence of the previous IPL - first-ball wickets, and gone on to make it a double-wicket maiden. A double-strike followed soon, and memories of Kolkata's horror 2009 came rushing back. Mathews and Shah, however, averted a one-sided start to the tournament with a partnership that seamlessly went from sensible to sizzling.
One cute paddle over fine leg excepting, Mathews employed strong hitting down the ground. Shah, on the other hand, employed the pick-up shot, almost a sweep of the fast bowlers, to good effect, hitting Symonds, Vaas and Jaskaran for sixes.
The tournament began with the class of Vaas. He started on target, swinging the ball late, and Manoj Tiwary fell over playing the first ball, and lobbed it straight to midwicket. Captain Sourav Ganguly edged to first slip in that double-wicket maiden, and Cheteshwar Pujara and Brad Hodge too departed after a 31-run stand.
Pragyan Ojha and Symonds initially managed to keep Mathews and Shah in check. In eight overs between them, their accurate and smart mid-innings bowling went for 45 runs despite expensive last overs that went for 21.
That was just the momentum the stumbling innings needed, taking Kolkata to 103 for 4 after 16 overs. During that period, Mathews had moved from starting with a top-edged six to attacking youngster Jaskaran Singh in a calculated manner.
Shah, who had been quiet until then, went after the returning Vaas, hitting him for a six and four. Mathews followed it up and launched his countryman over long-off, and 2-1-4-2 became 3-1-22-2.
With the score reading 121 for 4 after 17 overs, Gilchrist made two bold moves. T Suman bowled the 18th over, and was punished by Mathews, who reached his fifty in that over. He carried the momentum into the 19th over, hurting RP Singh too with straight, powerful hitting. Jaskaran, preferred to Vaas for the last over, bowled three yorkers and a good slower delivery, but still went for 10. It left the Kolkata bowlers with a target to bowl at.
The up-and-down match, with at least four swings in fortunes, and featuring good old-fashioned swing bowling, orthodox and unorthodox hitting, was a much-needed and much-denied relief from a rather unwatchable opening ceremony - featuring faded stars and a fading tribute band - that delayed the toss by 27 minutes.
Sidharth Monga is a staff writer at Cricinfo