Karthik Krishnaswamy is a senior sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo
Kolkata Knight Riders 171 for 4 (Gill 56, Sakariya 1-23) beat Rajasthan Royals 85 (Tewatia 44, Mavi 4-21, Ferguson 3-18) by 86 runs
Unless Mumbai Indians pull off a miracle even more miraculous than their great escape of 2014, Kolkata Knight Riders have sealed the fourth and final playoffs spot in IPL 2021. On another Sharjah pitch with treacherous low bounce, Knight Riders enjoyed the perfect game on Thursday - a solid opening stand to ensure they'd get to a competitive total after being sent in, a series of cameos from their middle order to lift them to the season's best total on this ground, and a ruthless bowling display to keep Rajasthan Royals to their second successive sub-100 total.
They might have preferred to chase given all the net-run-rate permutations, but this route suited them just fine too. They began the day with an NRR of 0.294, and their 86-run win lifted it to 0.587. Mumbai, who are on -0.048, will have to defeat Sunrisers Hyderabad by a ridiculous margin on Friday to bridge that gap.
How ridiculous? They'll need to win by 171 runs if they bat first. And if they lose the toss and bowl, they'll have no chance of making up their NRR deficit. Knight Riders don't just have a foot in the playoffs, they have everything but their trailing little toe in them.
Gill and Iyer lay solid platform
The pattern of the game was quite clear during the opening exchanges. Royals bowled exclusively seam through their first 10 overs, and all their seamers looked to hit the shorter side of a good length and bowl cross-seamers and cutters into the pitch. With neither pace nor bounce to work with if they batted normally, Shubman Gill and Venkatesh Iyer looked to counter this tactic by shuffling out of their crease to manufacture momentum towards the ball.
The first nine overs produced a contest that neither side dominated, with the runs coming at barely over a run a ball, but with no wickets falling Knight Riders came out of it the happier side.
WATCH - Shivam Mavi cleans up Glenn Phillips and Shivam Dube
Then Iyer hit two sixes in the 10th over, with Jaydev Unadkat overpitching on one occasion and bowling a perfectly acceptable ball on the other, only to be met by a straight-bat hit back over his head off a shortish length. In the next over, Gill stepped out to the evening's first ball of spin, found himself a long way from the pitch of the ball, and reached out to hit Rahul Tewatia for a not-entirely-controlled one-handed six over long-on. Knight Riders were 75 for 0 in 10.1 overs.
Middle order blasts off
Tewatia ended the 11th over strongly, bowling Iyer as he attempted to reverse-sweep, and the match was interestingly poised, with Knight Riders having nine wickets to play with over just 9.1 overs. Would their middle order bat with a suitable lack of fear about losing their wickets?
They would. Nitish Rana set the tone, lasting just five balls but hitting 12 off them, feasting on the Royals' decision to bowl a part-time offspinner at him. Rana is one left-hander who's definitely not troubled by offspin, as his IPL record against that style of bowling - an average of 42.00 and a strike rate of 162.79 - and his past takedowns of R Ashwin have testified.
Glenn Phillips is no Ashwin, and he overpitched twice to Rana to concede a carved four behind point and a big six down the ground. Even though Rana holed out immediately afterwards, Phillips ended up conceding 17 off the 12th over with Rahul Tripathi whipping its last ball for a first-ball four.
Rana, Tripathi, Dinesh Karthik and Eoin Morgan together tallied 60 off 41, and Gill did his bit too, going from 27 off 27 to an eventual 56 off 44, using his wristwork to defy the sluggishness of the surface and manufacture exquisite leg-side boundaries off Mustafizur Rahman and Chris Morris along the way.
The last 10 overs brought Knight Riders 102 runs, leaving the Royals a highly tricky chase against one of the best attacks in the competition.
Mavi and Ferguson show the value of high pace
Slower balls and cutters work very well on slow, low pitches, but their utility mainly lies in drying up boundaries and sucking the life out of innings. They aren't necessarily a means of full-frontal attack.
In Lockie Ferguson and Shivam Mavi, however, Knight Riders had two of the quickest bowlers in this match, and they showed that high pace can be utterly devastating when there's low bounce on offer.
Royals were already three down before this became apparent, and there had been no grand design behind the first three wickets. Yashasvi Jaiswal was bowled attempting to reverse-sweep Shakib Al Hasan, Sanju Samson hit an uppish flick too close to short midwicket, and Liam Livingstone lost his shape while trying to pull.
Thereafter, however, Mavi and Ferguson ripped through the Royals largely by means of bowling fast and getting the ball to skid through low from the shorter side of a good length, with Anuj Rawat, Phillips and Shivam Dube all stuck on the crease and either bowled or lbw to balls of this nature.
Then Morris was lbw trying to sweep Varun Chakravarthy, and the Royals were 35 for 7 with no way back into this game. Tewatia is always the last man to concede defeat, however, and he slog-swept his way to a 36-ball 44 to ensure the Royals didn't threaten the record for the lowest IPL total. They did, however, end their season by being bowled out for the lowest total of the season.