Nagraj Gollapudi is a senior assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo
It is a weird thing. A team like Royal Challengers Bangalore, by playing fearless cricket, has now found itself within one victory of making the playoffs from a previously hopeless position. In contrast, a team like Kolkata Knight Riders who won four out of their first five matches this season has managed just three wins in their following eight matches. Instead of being in an impregnable position, the two-time champions stand on the precipice of exiting ahead of the knockout stage with just one match remaining.
Sometimes what you fear materialises if you keep thinking about it. Despite being a strong position leading into the business leg of the tournament, the Knight Riders leadership group comprising captain Gautam Gambhir and coach Jacques Kallis have kept on saying that they could never forget the lesson learned from last season when they were in a similar position after a strong first half and failed to make the playoffs. Yet, the Knight Riders have failed to seal a knockout berth.
The reasons are aplenty: fielding lapses, poor running between the wickets, middle-order failures and generally an absence of fearless cricket. In Kanpur that sequence of mistakes continued. Gambhir wanted a single on the very first ball of the match which Robin Uthappa had pushed in to the hands of the short cover fielder. Gambhir was nearly halfway down the pitch and had to scamper back to safety to avoid being run out. He had already been run out thrice this IPL but it seemed he had still not worked out a solution.
At the start of the fourth over, Uthappa flicked Dhawal Kulkarni to short midwicket powerfully and set off for a run. Gambhir responded positively. But both openers were left stunned midway down the pitch, watching Shadab Jakati come up with a sprawling dive to his left and in one swift motion hit the stumps. Instead of focusing on completing the run, Gambhir dithered for a fraction of a second and was left shaking his head in dejection while walking back.
Uthappa had voiced his desire to bat deep and today was another chance to do so. Yet when the opportunity presented itself, he floundered badly. Praveen Kumar had earlier tried the plan to confront Uthappa with outswing by placing a couple of slips. But Praveen altered his lines too many times to allow Uthappa to settle down quickly.
However, Uthappa got carried away against Dwayne Smith's medium pace and paid the price, chasing an away swinging delivery from the Bajan. Uthappa admonished himself, but it was too late. He had already seen his Karnataka teammate Manish Pandey, too, commit the same error against Smith in the bowler's first over, yet Uthappa only ended up repeating the mistake.
After the top order collapse, the Knight Riders decided to put Piyush Chawla in a pinch-hitter's role clearly to accelerate. It was a plan fraught with danger considering the only act Chawla performed was swing his bat wildly for a hit-and-miss or be outsmarted by the bowler.
With the likes of Suryakumar Yadav, Shakib Al Hasan or even Jason Holder in the lower order, would it not have been a better option to send one of them to build a partnership with Yusuf Pathan, which was more important in the first 10 overs? By the time he was bowled, Chawla had chewed 16 deliveries, making just 11 runs with one four.
Thursday's 55 for 4 was the Knight Riders' lowest score at the end of 10 overs in this IPL. Coincidentally, their previous lowest - 57 - had also come against the Lions when the teams met at Eden Gardens. On Thursday, the Knight Riders batting lacked not just a plan and wised heads, but also the ruthlessness to snatch the control back. A total of 55 dot balls in a Twenty20 totally exposed the Knight Riders batting.
In the absence of the injured Andre Russell, someone had to come at the back end of the innings and pack a punch which the Jamaican has done consistently over the last two seasons. But Suryakumar and Shakib did not last long enough to help Yusuf at the other end to raise even a competitive total.
Since his match-winning 60 against Rising Pune Supergiants, Suryakumar has managed just 78 runs in six innings. In Pune, Suryakumar had been promoted to play the No. 3 role after Pandey sat out due to chicken pox. Pandey, too, apart from two half-centuries, has failed to cross 15 runs in the rest of his matches. Holder said the batsmen did not do well, especially the top order.
"We got to be honest, we haven't been at our best," Holder said. "We have been a bit inconsistent for the last few games. It just boils down to us being a little switched on at certain stages of the game so we can build partnerships when we bat and carry on as deep for guys like myself, Yusuf, Russell, if selected, to go on power hitting at the end."
Writing his newspaper column on Thursday, Gambhir described spilling the crucial catch of Virat Kohli in Knight Riders' last match against the Royal Challengers akin to a "wardrobe malfunction", referencing the Super Bowl halftime show fiasco involving performers Janet Jackson and Justin Timberlake from 2004. If the Knight Riders don't pick themselves in their final match, their entire season stands in danger of malfunctioning.