It's a clash of the titans. A former champion goes up against the current champion as Kolkata Knight Riders and Mumbai Indians take center stage. ESPNcricinfo's Live Blog is the best place to catch all the action, but if you are in the US, you can actually watch all the action LIVE on ESPN+. The English feed is here and the Hindi feed is here.

And it's done

KKR have demolished Mumbai. A victory with seven wickets and 29 balls to spare. That makes it two huge wins in a row and both of them have featured batting of the like their coach McCullum has been screaming out for. This campaign is well and truly back on track.

Mumbai, though, have a bit of work to do. They've slipped out of the top four and have problems both in the batting and the bowling departments. Hardik Pandya's curious absence is leaving them without the balance that makes them a champion team.

"Didn't get enough towards the back end of the innings," the captain Rohit Sharma says in the end. "We knew it was going to be hard work for us. 156 wasn't enough there."

History in the making?

KKR 111 for 1 in 10 overs; Iyer 48 (24), Tripathi 43 (27)

KKR vs Mumbai has been a one-sided contest. Especially recently. The head-to-head is 13-1 right now. But it's about to be 13-2.

Iyer is nearing a coming-of-age half-century, showing the gumption to attack any bowler he faces, reputation be damned.

Rahul Tripathi, when he's allowed to bat up the order, is a fantastic asset. Never wastes deliveries. Always bats at a high tempo. Puts the team first no matter what. He's about to raise a half-century himself. This partnership has already put on 71 off 42 and Mumbai haven't even come close to breaking it.

It's been six years since KKR beat Mumbai in a chase. If they score 45 runs in the next 60 balls, that monkey will be off their back.

The KKR makeover

KKR 40 for 1 in three overs Gill 13 (9) Iyer 27 (9)

Walks down the pitch to a champion left-armer and whips him - W-H-I-P-S - him over midwicket.

Stands tall against a speed demon's bouncer and pummels him - P-U-M-M-E-L-S - him over square leg.

The first was Shubman Gill, but it may as well have been Matthew Hayden. The second was Venkatesh Iyer, but it may as well have been Adam Gilchrist.

Kolkata Knight Riders were pulled up by their head coach Brendon McCullum for batting with fear. It shows in the stats, where their run-rate in the powerplay (7.35 prior to the IPL's resumption) was better only than the Royals, who just don't have a recognised opening pair, and the Kings (who are led by Rahul, who has been obsessed with batting within himself)

Since the IPL has come back, KKR have been a totally different beast. Gill has been more confident, more aggressive. Iyer has come out of nowhere. They've hit SEVEN boundaries already and it's just the third over of the chase.

Course even with all that, when you have a bowler like Jasprit Bumrah, you still manage to stay in the game, and that's what Mumbai Indians have done, their talisman clean bowling Gill for 13 off 9.

7:42
Who are the best dancers in the Mumbai Indians side? We asked Krunal Pandya
Who are the best dancers in the Mumbai Indians side? We asked Krunal Pandya

The death overs blues

Mumbai are a fearsome batting team. Usually. They've hit 443 sixes in the death (17 to 20) overs - easily the best among all the IPL teams with RCB (394) a distant second. This is a period of the game that they own, with both bat and ball. Except...

This season, their run-rate between overs 17 and 20 is a paltry 8.66. That's a full three points below their average (10.60) and puts them dead last in the death-overs race.

Hardik Pandya's absence may be a contributory factor here. So too their schedule, which had them playing in Chennai for a whole lot of the time, where the ball just wasn't coming onto the bat, and worse it was turning all over the place.

Still, champion teams find a way to beat the odds. Mumbai have done well to stay at the top end of the points table despite losing a massive player, and having to deal with unhelpful pitches. Now it's about whether they can kick on.

Who's the happier team

Mumbai 155 for 6; de Kock 55, Ferguson 2-27

Lockie Ferguson >>>>>> Pat Cummins

*ducks to avoid the rotten tomatoes*

Alright, alright. I will admit Cummins seems like the epitome of fast bowling. Like, who wouldn't want a tall, broad shouldered, old-Hollywood handsome hunk running straight at them. Happy Valentine's to me!

Cummins is tireless. From once being injury prone, he has gotten older, gotten fitter and now looks almost bionic. Invincible to injury. But! But... his range is a bit limited. He has one ball. The hit the deck ball. The back of a length ball. And if he can extract help off the pitch - either way movement - he can be all over a team.

But that just doesn't happen in T20s, so you need variations. You need extra pace. You need Lockie Ferguson, who can bowl yorkers, who can bowl back-of-the-hand slower balls, who can bowl back-of-the-hand-slower-ball yorkers. His spell tonight (4-0-27-2) - along with the mystery spinners' work (8-0-42-1) - may well be the difference for KKR.

Slow it downnnnnn!

Mumbai 121 for 4 in 17 overs; Pollard 7(6), Krunal 1(2)

Taking pace off works again for KKR as Krishna, whose first over went for 16 runs, has come back with two wickets, the latest thanks to a change of pace. Quinton de Kock's innings - it's been one of two clear halves - is cut down at 55 off 42 balls as he hoicks a slower ball straight to midwicket.

Knight Riders would relish that wicket, the set batter gone with the death overs still to come, eeeeeexcept it's Kieron Pollard walking into the middle.

Lockie Ferguson's role becomes absolutely key here (he's in his third over currently, 1 for 20). He's a bowler capable of hitting 150kph. If Pollard has a weakness it's to high pace, attacking his body.

The two faces of de Kock

Mumbai 93 for 2 in 13 overs; de Kock 48 (34) Kishan 3(4)

There's been a clear theme to the Mumbai opener's knock tonight. Ferocious against pace. Trying (and failing) to be ferocious against spin.

De Kock is a master at the leg-side pick up shot, so fast bowlers can't bowl too straight. He's amazing at the cut shot, so they can't simply angle it across him. If there's a weakness he has against fast bowling, it's when the ball can move and trap him lbw. Course here there's none of that.

So the SA ace has hit pace for 31 runs off 12 balls with three sixes, two fours and only three dots. But against spin, he's only got 16 runs in 21 balls, and EIGHT dots.

PS - Surya Yadav's gone for 5 off 10.

The divergent paths of the mystery spinners

Mumbai 77 for 0 in nine overs; Rohit 33 (29), de Kock 41 (25)

In another life, Varun C would've stayed an architect. Or maybe he might have become a Kollywood star (he has a movie credit yo). But in this one, he is a mad cricket fan and got into the game by watching Sunil Narine videos on Youtube.

Fast forward a few years and he's in India's T20 World Cup squad, a left-field pick, an X-factor pick, chosen ahead of established stars like Yuzvendra Chahal because, and I'm quoting a chief selector here, "If we ourselves cannot understand (how to read him) what will the batsman know."

Varun has made it. His star is rising. But what about his idol? Narine was once among the most feared bowlers in the world. He is an IPL stalwart. A World Cup winner. His four overs still un-hittable. And yet, his international career seems to be in limbo. Narine has been burned before when the spotlight is on him, the scrutiny on his action often forcing him to go back and virtually learn how to bowl again.

West Indies haven't picked him in their T20 World Cup squad. Could a good show for the Knight Riders here change that? He's removed Rohit Sharma - he's done that nine times now in this format - a little bit of extra bounce working the requisite magic needed to make the Mumbai captain mis-hit the ball. A quiet fist pump is all Narine allows for himself as he focuses on the task at hand. He's quality. He really should be playing at the highest level.

Spin vs pace

Mumbai 56 for 0 in 6 overs; de Kock 27 (16) and Rohit 27 (20)

Knight Riders are no strangers to going full spin in the powerplay. They bowled five overs of it to start a game against CSK earlier in the season. This time it's four, and they more or less kept Mumbai in check, the run-rate only 7.25.

Then came the quicks. Lockie Ferguson smashed for 11 runs. Prasidh Krishna pummeled for 16. Slowing down the game is crucial when the opposition starts to get on a roll so captain Morgan calls for a time-out and a regroup.

The captain in waiting

Mumbai 40 for 0 in five overs; Rohit 26 (19) de Kock 13 (11)

We know Virat Kohli is stepping down as India T20I captain. We know Rohit Sharma has four five IPL titles. We know (like 99.999999%) he is going to take over the team after the World Cup. And we know it's gonna be magic.

Because Rohit is clever. He's strategic. He's a top-class man manager, a friend when you need him, a kick in the butt when that's what's needed. The crowd in Abu Dhabi are SCREAMING his name as he takes control of this game.

Knight Riders tried to take away his power game by starting with spin. Rohit usually relies on his timing to get himself moving at the start of an innings, and when there's no pace on the ball, that tends to be difficult.

But this is a player discovering that there are no limits to his ability. People once said he didn't have the game for Test cricket, but he was India's best batter in the recent, and extremely difficult tour of England, from where they returned with a 2-1 lead. From steadfastly leaving the ball to ferociously attacking it, Rohit Sharma can do it all and he is a clear and present danger tonight. He becomes the first player in IPL history to score 1000 against a single team (KKR). You can Ask Cricinfo if you don't believe me.

How's Hardik?

Hardik Pandya is the closest player in the world who can emulate the breathtaking talent of Andre Russell. He hits sixes the moment he gets to the crease. He loves bowling the tough overs. (Remember this game?) And he revels in the spotlight. This is an all-round talent that should be setting the IPL alight... except he's missing his second straight match today.

Following a chronic back problem in 2018, that required surgery in 2019, Hardik has not been his usual awesome self. This man came once sat in front of a room full of journalists and with the straightest of faces told them "I coulda hit him for six aaaaaaany time I wanted." (The him being Adam Zampa, but that's really neither here nor there, because he's capable of hitting anyone for six any time he wants). That is Hardik Pandya at his best. Confident, brash, charismatic, match-winning. This is who India want at the T20 World Cup. This is who Mumbai will want towards the end of the IPL.

Here's Nagraj Gollapudi, news editor at ESPNcricinfo, on the matter.

For the second consecutive match Hardik Pandya is absent from Mumbai's team sheet. The franchise has not given a clear indication about the reason for the absence although head coach Mahela Jayawardene had pointed out the allrounder had a niggle after the defeat against Chennai Super Kings on September 19.

Hardik's absence is intriguing only because India's chief selector Chetan Sharma, while announcing the squad for the T20 World Cup, assured that Hardik was fit and would be bowling his full quota of overs during the marquee tournament that starts immediately after the IPL which ends on October 15.

Since undergoing a successful back surgery late in 2019 Hardik has nursed his way back into cricket. Incidentally, Hardik has not bowled a single over since the Sri Lanka series in late July. Between the two white-ball series stretching from England at home in March and Sri Lanka in July, Hardik bowled a total of 42 overs in 12 matches. In the seven matches in the first half of IPL, Hardik did not bowl. In fact, Hardik has not bowled in the IPL since the 2020 season.

Has the back troubles flared up again? Understandably, Hardik would not want to feel 100% confident about his back and not risk on the eve of the World Cup. It is a question not just concerning for Mumbai, but also for India.

Pollard vs Russell

They hit sixes the way you or I eat cookies. Morning, noon and night. It just doesn't stop. Mumbai will try their best to stop it with Jasprit Bumrah. Knight Riders might use a combination of Lockie Ferguson's pace and Sunil Narine and Varun Chakravarthy's mystery spin. But if any of those bowlers aren't absolutely perfect, they're gonna go the distance. You know how I know that? It's thanks to Ask Cricinfo, which helps you unlock the secrets of Statsguru through simple questions. Like who has the better strike rate in the death overs in IPL, Pollard or Russell? Here's the answer

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How do KKR make the best use of Andre Russell?
How do KKR make the best use of Andre Russell?

Toss: Knight Riders chose to bowl

Eoin Morgan says they wanna basically replicate the near-perfect day they had against RCB, when they bowled em out for 92 and chased it down with nine wickets in hand. Same side.

Rohit is "feeling good." His coming into the XI means Anmolpreet Singh goes out.

Kolkata Knight Riders: 1 Shubman Gill, 2 Venkatesh Iyer, 3 Rahul Tripathi, 4 Nitish Rana, 5 Eoin Morgan (capt), 6 Dinesh Karthik (wk), 7 Andre Russell, 8 Sunil Narine, 9 Lockie Ferguson, 10 Prasidh Krishna, 11 Varun Chakravarthy

Mumbai Indians: 1 Rohit Sharma (capt), 2 Quinton de Kock (wk), 3 Suryakumar Yadav, 4 Ishan Kishan, 5 Kieron Pollard, 6 Saurabh Tiwary, 7 Krunal Pandya, 8 Adam Milne, 9 Rahul Chahar, 10 Trent Boult, 11 Jasprit Bumrah

The pitch in Abu Dhabi tends to have a bit of grass on it. And it's a fresh one this evening too. So the quicks can expect some pace and bounce. Never any movement though. Whaddya think this is? Test cricket? Pah!

The primary wicket-takers on this ground though are the spinners, helped by the larger size of the ground, which means those six-hitters sometimes get caught out. None o' those edges flying to the boundary up in here!

Rohit returns (?)

Yo! For all those not keeping count - Omg why?! Like what is more important than the IPL for you?! - and even for all those who are - coz I took a peek and y'all just ain't doin it right - we are expecting the return of Rohit Sharma to a cricket field.

Mumbai Indians coach Mahela Jayawardene said his missing the team's resump-opener (open-tion?), which they lost, was mostly as a precaution. A means to give him the time he needs to get back to his T20 best after a remarkable tour of England.

If those plans come to fruition, Kolkata Knight Riders better watch out.

Course, they're on a bit of a rise as well. Ironic though it might seem, the IPL moving away from India may well be the game-changer they've been looking for. Conditions here in the UAE appear to be tailor-made for them - their bowling attack especially - and coach Brendon McCullum is adamant that they play fearless cricket.

Alagappan Muthu is a senior sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo