MS Dhoni's massive six-hitting half a country away may have all but ended Kolkata Knight Riders' chances of making the semi-finals, but the spectators still turned up in their thousands at the Eden Gardens on Monday evening, braving searing summer heat and oppressive humidity. Some came wearing the old black shirt, others were in the new purple one; some had the team logo painted on their faces, while others walked along bemoaning the loss to Kings XI Punjab that had dealt such a crippling blow to their hopes of progress.
After what had transpired outside the Chinnaswamy Stadium on Saturday, getting inside the ground was no stroll either. Even those with media credentials had their bags checked four or five times, and there were nervous whinnying police horses to get past before the gates could be glimpsed. Inside, with two of the bigger stands yet to be rebuilt before the World Cup next year, there were a few empty spaces.
A season that had begun so promisingly had been pretty much ended by a man who first caught the eye with his big-hitting in Kolkata's club cricket. The sense of anticlimax intensified with the announcement of the Mumbai Indians team. No Sachin Tendulkar, no Kieron Pollard, no Lasith Malinga, no Harbhajan Singh, no Zaheer Khan. Dwayne Bravo was captain.
For Kolkata to have made the last four, they would have needed to bat first and win by close to 175 runs. When they lost the toss, even that possibility, slim though it was, was extinguished. It didn't lessen the noise though, and a couple of the more inexperienced Mumbai players seemed quite unnerved by the atmosphere.
Saurabh Tiwary and Ambati Rayudu , who had started the season so well, were unfazed but the makeshift XI lost too many wickets at crucial times. Each wicket was cheered, but the biggest applause of the night was reserved for Sourav Ganguly, who had made something of a habit of taking stunning catches this season. The latest grab at midwicket left him winded, but it epitomised a committed effort that belied their position in the lower reaches of the table.
With the bat, Ganguly was no less a factor, smacking Ali Murtaza for a six in the opening over. This was a chase devoid of drama and after a while even the crowd lost its fizz. It would rouse itself each time Ganguly or Brendon McCullum found the rope, but most had probably slipped into what-might-have-been mode.
Their first victory in six attempts against Mumbai was clinched with 15 balls to spare but by then Ganguly had departed, miscuing one to backward point. Over the past few days, there have been some media reports suggesting he could be a target for the new Sahara-owned Pune franchise and a fresh auction is scheduled for September or October. If this was Ganguly's last act in a Kolkata jersey, it was a winning one.
Once the parties are over and reflection takes hold, Kolkata will reflect on a season that was a massive improvement on last year's joke, but still left them as the only franchise not to make a semi-final. Ganguly finished with 493 runs, Murali Kartik was easily the pick of the Indian spinners, and Ashok Dinda appeared to regain the spark that had pushed him to the fringes of national selection in 2008.
Shane Bond didn't take as many wickets as some might have hoped, and the injury to Charl Langeveldt was a real blow, but Kolkata were let down by underwhelming displays from Chris Gayle and McCullum when the stakes were most high. Ishant Sharma's descent from pace-bowling hope to buffet bowler was just as damaging, and the franchise will hope Jaidev Unadkat's career follows a different trajectory.
In the end, Kolkata finished as one of six teams with at least seven wins to their name. The net run-rate though was beyond redemption, stuck in the minuses as a result of some crushing defeats. Afterwards, Ganguly spoke of the failure to defend 200 against Kings XI and the poor batting in the second half of an innings in Bangalore. In a league of inconsistent teams, Kolkata were punished because their troughs tended to be so much deeper than everyone else's.
With the clock moving towards midnight, they streamed out quietly, seeking the buses, trains and cabs that would take them home. Up above Gate 1, a billboard had the team's motto: Miles to Go, Promises to Keep. The first part was depressingly true. The second, despite Ganguly's sterling efforts and the improvements supervised by Dav Whatmore, wasn't.