Kolkata Knight Riders can spoil the Punjab party

Kings XI, long underachievers, have X-factor, but the hosts are peaking at the right time ahead of the first of play-offs on Wednesday.
Morne Morkel has spearheaded an excellent Kolkata Knight Riders attack. Jeffrey E Biteng / The National
Morne Morkel has spearheaded an excellent Kolkata Knight Riders attack. Jeffrey E Biteng / The National

It says something of the ill winds blowing around cricket at present that any sense of awe or wonder at the manner in which a couple of the weekend games panned out is entwined with considerable, and understandable, scepticism.

For every individual enthusing about the hitting prowess of Yusuf Pathan or Corey Anderson, there are others with frowns and furrowed brows over the surfeit of full tosses and half volleys that made their tasks so much easier.

With the investigation into last year’s misdemeanours in the Indian Premier League still not complete, and fresh allegations emerging from England in the past week, this is the age of cynicism. It has not escaped anyone’s notice that one of those whose fixing-related testimony was leaked to the papers was Brendon McCullum, fondly remembered in these parts for that breathtaking 158 in the first IPL game.

Back then, Kolkata Knight Riders were a joke of a team. Like Manchester City in the 1990s, they found new and farcical ways to lose and lose face at the same time. Things began to change in 2012 when a late surge took them to the title and a similar seven-match run has made them the team to beat in this year’s competition.

They did not train last night – neither did Kings XI Punjab – with vast tracts of the Eden Gardens outfield still under covers, but Trevor Bayliss’s calm answers at the news conference were indicative of the confidence within the camp in a team that believes it can turn anyone over – especially on home turf in front of one of the most raucous crowds in world sport.

Before the tournament, Impact Index had predicted that Kolkata would finish second in the table. It did not, like many others, expect Punjab to finish top of the table.

A byword for mediocrity since reaching the last four in the first season, Punjab rode on a blistering start from Glenn Maxwell to sew up first place.

As much as the inventive stroke play from Maxwell – and David Miller – was responsible for them reaching the top, the rank outsiders also have to thank a group of relatively unknown Indian players. At various times this season, Sandeep Sharma, Akshar Patel, Rishi Dhawan and Karanveer Singh have all shone. It should perhaps be no surprise that Sanjay Bangar, the only Indian coach in the tournament and someone who knows the domestic scene like few others, coaches them.

With qualification for the play-offs assured, Punjab had time to tinker, and the likes of Shaun Marsh and Beuran Hendricks have had a taste of the action in case they are required for the games that matter. The key man, however, might be a fit-again Mitchell Johnson, who has yet to reproduce the venom of his feted Ashes campaign.

Punjab’s bowling will certainly need to be sharper – the dismissal of the hapless Delhi Daredevils was more an exception than the rule – if they are to rein in a Kolkata line-up that has married brutal power with incredible consistency as they have climbed up the table.

Robin Uthappa has been the heartwarming story of the tournament from an Indian perspective, but there have been telling contributions from Gautam Gambhir and Shakib Al Hasan.

With the ball, Sunil Narine has been the match-winner that Kolkata have come to rely on, supported by sporadic game-changing efforts from Shakib, Morne Morkel, Piyush Chawla and Umesh Yadav.

If the surface is spin-friendly or even skiddy, Narine’s tussle against Punjab’s batsmen, none of whom are hesitant to go over the top, could be a minor classic.

Eden Gardens is no fortress though. Last season, Kolkata lost there three times, while their victorious campaign in 2012 was marked by four home losses.

It was their remarkable run away from home – seven wins out of eight – that was the harbinger of glory.

Punjab have won twice at Eden, in 2010 and 2012, and would take great confidence from their road trips this season – six wins out of seven. Before the tournament they were seen as a bunch of mercurial talents that did not possess the consistency to be part of the final shake-up. But starting with Maxwell’s ballistic hitting, they have made a habit of proving people wrong.

The weather could well play a part in deciding who goes through to the final, but both teams know that defeat here does not necessarily mean the end. Punjab have the X-factor, but it is the home side that have come to the boil at the perfect time.

In front of what is likely to be a full house, grey skies or sunshine, they should have Punjab’s measure.

Dileep Premachandran is editor in chief of Wisden India. Visit www.wisdenindia.com for more on the IPL or follow them on Twitter @WisdenIndia.

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Published: May 26, 2014 04:00 AM

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