Sandeep Sharma provides silver lining amidst Kings XI gloom
Sandeep Sharma is one of the few genuine domestic Indian fast bowlers that the IPL has unearthed, bowlers who have shown prowess and performance for more than one season, and his skills were on full display in Kolkata
Arguably one of the best, if not the best over of this IPL - Sandeep Sharma's final six deliveries against two of the most brutal batsmen in T20 cricket - Andre Russell and Yusuf Pathan.
Kolkata Knight Riders were sitting strong on 160 for 2 at the end of the penultimate over - with Russell on 14 off seven balls and Yusuf on 17 off 13 - and would have felt 175 was realistic. Sandeep stuck to a round the stump angle which he was forced to adopt having bowled three consecutive wides in his previous over from over the stumps. Russell stood deep in the crease. He was waiting for the low full toss or the angled yorker length delivery wide on the off stump which he could chip or steer over or past point.
But Sandeep had a different plan. He had already seen Russell floored a couple of times by the yorker this tournament including that knockout punch from Bangladesh left-arm fast bowler Mustafizur Rahman in Hyderabad.
So Sandeep went wide of the crease and delivered the inch-perfect yorker deep into Russell's toes. The angle and the accuracy stunned the Jamaican who lost his balance trying to dig out the delivery and fell in the process but was still able to squirt the ball out for a single.
Incredibly Sandeep maintained the same line, the same length to stifle both Knight Riders batsmen for the remaining five deliveries, culminating in a run out of Russell on the final delivery. Four singles and two dots, including the last ball run out, comprised Sandeep's over, one that could turn any match. A target of 165 no longer looked insurmountable for Kings XI.
There are not many genuine domestic Indian fast bowlers that the IPL has unearthed, bowlers who have shown prowess and performance for more than one IPL, carried forward the skills and experience into their domestic cricket and been on the fringes of selection for the Indian team. Sandeep has ticked all those boxes. He joined the franchise in 2013 but already he is on the verge of becoming their best fast bowler in terms of wickets.
Sandeep had given just two runs off the first over of the match imparting swing and seam and offering no width. Yet Murali Vijay, the newly installed Kings XI captain, opted to leave his strike bowler back for the death overs, a phase where Sandeep has become the go-to man for Kings XI captains in the last two years.
Sandeep has the third best economy rate, 6.55, for any bowler to bowl at least 15 overs in this IPL, behind only Shakib Al Hasan (6.52) and Mustafizur (6.53). At the death, Sandeep has bowled five overs at an economy rate of 7.60 so far this IPL including today's match.
At Eden Gardens on Wednesday, with seven overs to go, Sandeep returned for his second spell. Gautam Gambhir and Robin Uthappa were going strong, but they were tiring and somewhat desperate as Axar Patel and Swapnil Singh had bowled economically in the middle overs.
Despite all his experience and performances, Uthappa remains suspect against swing and has frequently edged while moving in to drive fuller, away swinging deliveries. Today, he opted to play Sandeep from the crease. Gambhir paid the price for over eagerness and was run out.
When presented with a full toss, Uthappa slapped Sandeep for four but he was not comfortable. When Sandeep pulled back his length on the off stump, Uthappa rushed into his drive, top edged high over the bowler's head and nearly walked back to the dugout. But Mohit Sharma ran into the path of a straightforward catch for David Miller and botched the chance.
After two one-over spells, Sandeep returned to deliver the 18th. Eyebrows were raised when he delivered three consecutive wides against Russell. Sandeep was delivering from as wide as was possible off the crease while attempting to get the off stump yorkers right. His plan was to challenge Russell to come out of his comfort zone and not just swing his bat.
Following the third wide, Sandeep signalled immediately to the umpire he was going round the stumps. Another full yorker, again on the off stump, flew over third man for four off Russell's outside edge. But Sandeep was not afraid. He stuck to his plan, pitched full into the batsman's legs and gave away jut four singles to end the 18th.
He might have gone wicketless in the end, but the success of his final over showed Sandeep's courage, his bowling intelligence and his presence of mind. At 22 years old, Sandeep has already shown he is a smart, thinking mind, who can handle pressure. Unfortunately, Sandeep was failed by Kings XI's batsmen, who failed to keep their heads in a position of strength before ultimately falling short.
Nagraj Gollapudi is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo