Karthik Krishnaswamy is a senior sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo
Kolkata Knight Riders 130 for 7 (Rana 36*, Gill 30, Avesh 3-13) beat Delhi Capitals 127 for 9 (Pant 39, Smith 39, Ferguson 2-10, Narine 2-18, V Iyer 2-29) by three wickets
In replacing the injured Andre Russell with a fast bowler rather than an allrounder, Kolkata Knight Riders were placing a lot of faith in Sunil Narine to balance their side. He no longer opens their batting, and before this game had scored 4, 6, 0, 0 and 0* in his only outings with the bat this season.
Narine repaid that faith with an influential all-round display that led the Knight Riders to their third win in four games in the UAE leg of IPL 2021.
On a tricky, two-paced pitch in Sharjah, Delhi Capitals only managed 127 after being sent in, with Narine looking un-hittable while finishing with 2 for 18 in his four overs. The chase was a stop-start affair, and there were moments when it seemed like the game could go either way, not least when Narine walked in with the Knight Riders needing 32 off 32 with five wickets in hand.
Chancing his arm and riding his luck, Narine clattered 21 off 10 balls, quickly reinforcing the smallness of the target. The game wasn't quite done yet, as Narine and then Tim Southee fell with the Knight Riders at the doorstep of victory, necessitating an injured Lockie Ferguson to come out to bat. But Narine's hitting ensured the anxiety was kept to a minimum: Nitish Rana's winning slash to the third man boundary came with 10 balls still left to play.
WATCH - Narine takes Rabada to the cleaners
Dhawan and only
Four overs into the match, it wasn't yet fully apparent how this pitch would play. Knight Riders went all-pace in the powerplay, and Shikhar Dhawan used the pace on offer from Sandeep Warrier and Tim Southee to pick up five fours in 16 balls.
An umpire's call verdict saved Dhawan when a Southee skidder sneaked under his attempted pull in the fourth over, and in the next over he slapped Ferguson straight to cover point to fall for 24 off 20. By then, Knight Riders had worked out that slower balls and cross-seam balls bowled into the pitch was the way to go for the seamers. Capitals 35 for 1 in five overs.
The Chakravarthy-Narine strangle
From the 6th over to the 11th, it was all about Knight Riders' mystery spinners, both of whom bowl quick and into the pitch, hitting the shorter side of a good length and denying batters easy hits down the ground. It was the ideal style of spin bowling for this pitch, and the Capitals batters struggled to take the initiative against Varun Chakravarthy and Narine.
Only 17 came off the first four overs of spin, with Narine picking up his first wicket with a brilliant bit of deception, switching to a middle-finger-and-ring-finger grip while loading up behind his back, and sneaking an offbreak between bat and pad as Shreyas Iyer looked to push into the off side with an open face.
Steven Smith - who had come in for the injured Prithvi Shaw - picked up a pair of deft fours off the first ball of Chakravarthy's third over, the tenth of Capitals' innings, and then swept Narine to beat a diving deep backward square leg in the next over, to move to 35 off 27.
These were vital hits, with Rishabh Pant struggling for timing at the other end, but just when it seemed like Smith had gained a measure of the conditions, he played on to Ferguson while attempting a pull off a hard-length ball that kept a touch low. With that, Capitals were 77 for 3 in 12.2 overs.
Capitals fizzle out
The wicket of Smith came in Ferguson's second over. It also turned out to be his last, with a hamstring injury forcing him off the field. The selection of Southee for Russell came in handy at this juncture, as did the versatility of Venkatesh Iyer, who sent down four overs of medium-pace, denying both left- and right-handers room while mostly hitting an exaggeratedly full length that denied them elevation as well.
He also picked up two key wickets, getting Shimron Hetmyer to hole out to long-off, defeated by the slowness of the pitch, and Axar Patel to chip a catch to midwicket. In between, Narine took his second wicket, trapping Lalit Yadav lbw for a duck.
With Pant unable to find the boundary with any real frequency at his end, the Capitals innings ground to a halt, their last nine overs bringing them just 54 runs for the loss of nine wickets. And for the second time this season, they got through an entire innings without hitting a six. They had lost that game as well, against Rajasthan Royals in Mumbai.
Gill provides the early momentum
Venkatesh followed up his impressive bowling spell with two fours in the first over of the chase, off Anrich Nortje, before falling to Lalit Yadav's offspin in the fifth over. His opening partner Shubman Gill also delivered crucial early hits, stepping out in the second over to hit Axar Patel back over his head for the first six of the match, and then clearing long-on when he went after R Ashwin in the seventh over.
By this time the Knight Riders had also lost Rahul Tripathi, but they were keeping themselves ahead of the required rate. When Rana, who came in at No. 4, swept Ashwin to the backward square leg boundary at the end of the ninth over, Knight Riders needed 66 from 66.
Rabada and Ashwin make things interesting
Capitals held Kagiso Rabada back until the 11th over, and he began with five straight dots to Gill, a mixture of hard-length balls and yorkers. Then, seeing Gill step out, Rabada shortened his length and bowled a slower offcutter into the pitch. Too early into his flat-bat slog, Gill picked out the fielder at long-on.
When Ashwin followed up that wicket-maiden by getting Eoin Morgan caught at slip, Knight Riders were just beginning to wobble, needing 61 from 52 with six wickets in hand.
The importance of going hard
Sometimes, you can overcomplicate T20. Sometimes, one team enjoys a run of luck that sees them through. Dinesh Karthik looked extremely uncertain in a 14-ball innings that ended with a chop-on off Avesh Khan, but by then he'd slashed hard twice at Rabada and Lalit and picked up a pair of edged fours.
Rana, meanwhile, had stepped out to Lalit, found himself a long way from the pitch of the ball, and gone through with his shot anyway, and ended up clearing the straight boundary by a distance. Then he'd got one closer to his slot, and slog-swept that cleanly for another six.
So by the time Karthik departed, Knight Riders were still in control of the required rate.
Narine's arrival only brought them more luck. Rabada went with the age-old plan of going short at his body, only for a top-edged hook to carry all the way for six. Then he sent down two short balls that didn't have the same venom in them, and Narine clubbed them for four and six. Twenty-one came off that Rabada over, and Knight Riders now only needed 9 off 24.