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Shardul Thakur's 45 minutes of mayhem sparks Eden Gardens to life

On Thursday, he proved he does not shy away from the big stage. In fact, that's where he thrives

Sreshth Shah
Sreshth Shah
Over the years, Shardul Thakur has evolved from being a red-ball fast bowler, primarily, to a handy lower middle-order batter who also picks up key wickets in the limited-overs formats. He may not be as consistent as he would have liked to be, whether with the bat or with the ball, but Thakur has proved several times that he does not shy away from the big stage.
On Thursday, there was a chance for Thakur to be the star, and he cashed in. With Kolkata Knight Riders at 89 for 5, and Andre Russell gone for a first-ball duck, Thakur knew that the stage was set up for him perfectly: a packed Eden Gardens, a first home match for the Knight Riders, the star team owner in the stands and star Indian cricketer in the opposition camp. All that was needed was action. He provided that with a 29-ball 68 that left Royal Challengers Bangalore so stunned that the eventual target of 205 proved too steep.
Over the years, Thakur has become a character who wants to be in the thick of the action. Even when things aren't going his team's way, Thakur has that look on his face - he wants to bring his side back in the contest. And even as he produced heroic performances in Tests - twin fifties at The Oval and a 67 in Brisbane, both in India's victories - he never was the star performer.
On Thursday, nothing quite stood out about his innings against Royal Challengers from a technical standpoint. He offered poor defensive technique first ball and was lucky to not become a hat-trick victim for Karn Sharma. The nine fours and three sixes that followed were not extravagantly beautiful either. They were effective shots built on a base which is a handy technique from the Mumbai school of batting. In short, they were shots from a cricketer who briefly felt invincible, and it was this confidence that translated into runs.
The three sixes in his innings epitomised that. Thakur cleared the boundary once off Akash Deep and twice off Michael Bracewell. None of those shots came off the middle of the bat, but they did come off the bat of someone who was willing to give it a full swing. For 45 minutes, everything that Thakur touched turned to gold.
"Even I didn't know where it came from," Thakur said after the match. "Looking at the scorecard, anyone would've said we are struggling out there. But at some point, your subconscious mind has to take over and pre-empt what bowlers are going to bowl and areas you are going to hit."
On the night, that plan worked perfectly for Thakur - who also picked up a wicket in the chase - and in the process, also vindicated the decision of the Knight Riders backroom staff, who chose to trade him into the squad as part of an all-cash deal of INR 10 crore from Delhi Capitals. Thakur's innings did one more thing - it brought the Eden Gardens crowd to life. Knight Riders came into the season with very few marquee names barring their two West Indians, Russell and Sunil Narine, and there was a sense that the home crowd was not finding the common ground that would give them a connect with their side.
Virat Kohli shadow batting brought the loudest cheers before the start of the game, and shouts of "Kohli, Kohli" were getting more frequent as the Knight Riders top order crumbled. Previously, when Russell was dismissed cheaply at Eden Gardens, pin-drop silence would follow. On this occasion, there was a big roar when he was out the first ball. Perhaps a lack of faith in the team. Perhaps the worth of the opposition. Perhaps both.
Royal Challengers have built a loyal fanbase around the country centred on their biggest star, and also their social media game. A direct impact of that could be seen in Kolkata, where before 2019, it was almost impossible that Knight Riders' wickets would be celebrated with such fervour. Before the match, walking into the stadium, even if more fans were hoping for a home win, it seemed more spectators had the Royal Challengers red on compared to the Knight Riders purple.
"The innings Rinku played was as important as Shardul's. He is a bindaas (amazing) guy. If you keep things simple with him, he will play cricket in a simple way too. And that is our strength"
KKR captain Nitish Rana
After Thakur's innings, though, the Knight Riders faithfuls went back to creating the sort of buzz that made Eden Gardens such a stronghold for the home side. It culminated with the loudest cheers of the night when Kohli was bowled by Narine in the chase, the start of a collapse that led to an 81-run win for Knight Riders.
While Thakur stole the limelight, Rinku Singh also made a valuable contribution of 46 off 33 balls. Rinku is best known in the IPL for his sharp fielding and cameos with the bat, but those small efforts have not gone unnoticed. In Kolkata, he has developed a cult-like following and has turned into a crowd favourite. Knight Riders captain Nitish Rana later said that Rinku played his role - to stay till the end, and not start slogging too early - perfectly.
"The innings Rinku played was as important as Shardul's," Rana said after the match. "In the time out, I told him that I know he can hit seven sixes if he wants to, but at that time he didn't need to. I told him he can hit three sixes [to make up] later in the innings because he has the skills for it, but at that time it was important for him to stay till the 19th-20th over. Rinku is a bindaas (cool) guy. If you keep things simple with him, he will play cricket in a simple way too. And that is our strength."
While the Knight Riders' win at home changed the trend for them somewhat, their top order looked out of sorts for the second game in a row. It took the highest sixth-wicket stand in the IPL since 2012, a rare, freakish innings and partnership, to lift them from what looked like 140 to 200-plus. For now, they can afford to bask in the afterglow till their next challenge: against defending champions Gujarat Titans in Ahmedabad on Sunday.

Sreshth Shah is a sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo. @sreshthx