At different times in the Eliminator clash against Kolkata Knight Riders, Rajasthan Royals enjoyed the pleasures of stunning the packed Eden Gardens to complete silence. For years, the venue had been one of RR’s bogey grounds, but as the sultry Wednesday evening progressed, they gained, lost and regained their footing.
Only to eventually lose it again in a drama-filled final half-an-hour.
On a very tacky and damp Eden Gardens surface, RR’s bowlers took full advantage of a 7 PM start. KKR’s top-order was nullified by the turn and grip, and even as Dinesh Karthik and Shubman Gill slowly worked through the early wreckage, the hosts were headed for a sub-150 total. Once Andre Russell stepped up to do what Andre Russell does in such situations – highlights reel of his 25-ball 49 include an inexplicable six that soared over the RR dugout after he connected with the toe end of his horizontal bat – the balance of the game tilted towards KKR.
A target of 170 on that surface in a knockout game appeared tough, but nothing that a good start couldn’t simplify. Ajinkya Rahane and Rahul Tripathi scored 47 quick runs together, and RR had 51 for 1 in 6 overs. The foundation for a successful chase had been laid, allowing RR to regain their lost grip on the game with a breezy post-powerplay period. After 10 overs, RR were left to chase four fewer than what they’d already scored, and had nine wickets in hand to achieve it. Irrespective of the pressures of the game, that, for a side with players with oodles of T20 experience, will always be perceived as gettable.
Having already pushed KKR into the corner, the time and occasion was ripe for RR to indulge in a few risks, target one or two bowlers and eat into the deficit. But when there should’ve been a flurry, out came a flaw.
“I think our plan was to go deep, when me and Sanju [Samson] were batting. I just told him I’ll play some positive shots and if you’re still there, try and bat deep,” Rahane revealed in a post-match press conference. The concept is not new, even to this fast-paced format, but to resort to it even with nine wickets in hand beggared conventional wisdom. While RR mentor Shane Warne raged on Twitter and pleaded for a faster approach to kill off the case by the 18th over, RR took a defensive route ahead, with constant nurdles for ones and twos, which denied them the chance to weigh down on the KKR bowlers and make them alter their plans.
The four overs following the 10th fetched 3, 6, 7 and 6 runs, driving up the asking rate beyond 10-an-over.
When Piyush Chawla had Rahane caught-and-bowled in the first ball of the 15th, a very familiar-yet-strange T20 innings ended – on 46 off 41 balls. Rahane trudged off without having eased RR’s task, despite the amount of runs he scored, but his departure presented RR with another opportunity to make a brave move.
As the KKR players huddled up after celebrating the wicket and waited for the next man in, the giant screen displayed the equation – 61 required off 35 balls. Krishnappa Gowtham should’ve been RR’s final throw of a die in desperation, considering his season strike rate of 196.87 and the experience of snatching away wins from losing positions. But Heinrich Klaasen walked out instead.
“I think if you see, Klaasen is a really good batsman and he did really well in the last game. It is difficult when you don’t get those runs… you try and think what if you had sent Gowtham at that number. We sent Klaasen… yes he tried his best but again KKR bowlers, specially the spinners, were really good.
“I think with our batting line-up, we wanted to go deep. When me and Sanju were batting, we wanted to go deep and if Klaasen can come when they have seven or eight overs left, I think that was a perfect opportunity for him. Unfortunately we didn’t cross the line but I don’t think our strategy was wrong there. I think KG’s [Krishnappa Gowtham] batting position… he batted well at number 6 or 7,” Rahane offered.
The RR captain is spot on for doffing his hat to the opposition, but the justification for Klaasen’s entry at No. 4 was quite flimsy. RR backed Klaasen to pull off a heist based on his 21-ball 32 from five days ago, which came while batting first, and was his only performance of note in the four matches he has played this season. Here he was thrown into the deep end, while Gowtham who has played some whirlwind cameos – 11-ball 33, four-ball 13, five-ball 14 to name a few – sat and waited for his turn. Even with RR intent on backing Klaasen’s finishing skills, another Gowtham blitzkrieg as a pre-cursor would’ve narrowed the equation to an extent and made the task slightly less arduous for the South African.
But RR lacked an adventurous side for such a punt. Instead, they ended up pushing the absurdity a notch higher by sending in Stuart Binny at No. 5.
Klaasen’s struggle against Kuldeep’s barrage of googlies and the failure to conjure up big sixes like he was expected to, shot the asking rate through the roof. Gowtham arrived after Binny’s tragicomic three-ball duck, by when the game was all but over.
The 25-run margin in the eventual result was largely down to a spectacular bowling effort from KKR. Yet, based on all that transpired since the midway through the run-chase, RR appeared equally culpable.
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