As the Indian Premier League heads to its 41st fixture between Kolkata Knight Riders and Rising Pune Supergiant to be played at Eden Gardens, the picture for the play-offs has a virtual writing on the wall — it’s the fight for the top two slots that takes centre stage now.

Knight Riders have had a terrific run so far are in the tournament — minus the loss to Sunrisers Hyderabad by 48 runs; courtesy David Warner’s scintillating 126(59) — and are still the team other six teams will like to beat.

Contrary, standing true to their name, Rising Pune Supergiant — languishing at the bottom of the points table in last IPL edition — is certainly improved most with each game they have played together and is currently placed fourth on the points table.

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Kolkata Knight Riders so far had muscled every opponent they have been tabled against in the tournament until last Sunday when they faced the defending champions Sunrisers Hyderabad.

Playing on the home turf, SRH skipper unleashed mayhem on KKR bowlers with a sparkling 126 off just 59 deliveries. Hyderabad registered a convincing 48 runs victory and the highest total (209/3) by any team against Knight Riders.

KKR Coach Jacques Kallis must have taken a note of the slide and given a piece of his mind — it was a bad day at the office and not every day their bowlers will be belted (after all they don’t play David Warner in every game).

The loss against SRH, however, may have exposed a little vulnerability in KKR — dependence on the good starts.

The move to open the batting with Sunil Narine has failed two games in a row. Captain Gambhir should talk to Narine and ask him to back his strength and keep playing him at the top, maybe he should also ask the Trident bowler to not try hitting ever ball for a boundary and rotate the strike.

Narine has been their best move post the loss of Chris Lynn — suffered an injury in the second game against Mumbai Indians — who was seen practising with the KKR team on the nets and is expected to get back in a week. Lynn’s return would give a major boost to KKRs formidable batting line up.

Leading the pack well with both bat and aggressive antiques in the field, the skipper has certainly had the best IPL season so far. With 387 runs in 10 matches, his blistering form is well reciprocated in the way he has been marching the troops throughout the tournament.

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Another positive for KKR is the return of the flamboyant Karnataka cricketer Robin Uthappa. The wicketkeeper-batsman — 384 runs in 10 matches — has had a sudden outburst of form and has been a nightmare ever since for the bowlers. He has been sensational both in front and behind the wickets.

Uthappa has played with freedom and has been an exhibition besides playing an instrumental role in some of KKRs victories this season. Uthappa has also allowed Gambhir to play more freely and anchor the innings while he continues the onslaught at the other end.

The middle order of KKR with the likes of Yusuf Pathan and Manish Pandey have looked promising. Down the order, Sheldon Jackson has chipped in whenever required.

Coach Kallis and skipper Gambhir will be very satisfied the way their bowling has evolved this season. What essentially used to be a spinners camp till the last IPL editions are basking in the success of their pace attack.

The speedsters — Colin de Grandhomme, Nathan Coulter-Nile, Umesh Yadav and Chris Woakes — have together scalped 35 opponent wickets so far.

 

The spin department is jam packed with Narine — 6 wickets in 10 matches— and Kuldeep Yadav — 8 wickets in 9 matches. Both the spinners are bowling as per plan to contain the run leakage and get the breakthrough when required.

One can only imagine the problem of Kallis sitting in the dugout and not playing the likes of Shakib Al Hasan and Trent Boult — a happy state, undoubtedly.

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Rising Pune Supergiant come into the game today with two back to back wins — beat Gujarat Lions by five wickets; beat Royal Challengers Bangalore by 61 runs — and will want to continue to ride in the good form.

After being hammered to three straight losses as the season begun, RPS has pulled things together to win five of their last six games.

One of the reasons why Pune started the campaign on losing cause is because a lot revolved around the Skipper Steve Smith despite the presence of batting stalwarts — MS Dhoni, Ben Stokes, Ajinkya Rahane and Manoj Tiwary.

As RPS played more games together, the team has regrouped and each player looks to chip in with their contributions resulting in a much more evolved and synchronised unit.

Pune might not have their men among the top scorers or the wicket takers in the tournament like the KKR but the team is very balanced if looked carefully.

 

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KKR vs RPS: Knight Riders have already defeated Pune Supergiant once in this season.

 

Opening the batting Rahane and Rahul Tripathi compliment each other very well. While Rahane sticks to traditional cricket at its best, Tripathi is explosive and all about timing. Together the pair has stitched 474 runs for the team.

With the season narrowing down, both of them need to spend more time on the crease and not throw away their wickets after getting a good start. Tripathi specifically looks a very promising cricketer getting a 30+ score in every game he plays. The 26-year-old firecracker from Maharashtra should put a value on his wicket and not stop selling if like freebies.

Skipper Steve Smith also needs to play more freely and take calculated risks. He has to back his instincts and anchor to the other end of the wicket.

The high point for the team and coach Stephan Fleming at this hour is that the most expensive player of the IPL 2017, Ben Stokes has come back to the groove.

The left-handed English all-rounder on Monday played a ripper and single-handedly slayed Suresh Raina led Gujarat Lions with an unbeaten 63-ball 103 — that clearly justifies why a whopping RS 14.5 crore was spent on him.

Stokes may not be among the rank turners as far are the wickets are concerned but he is bowling very well to check the opposition. It will be interesting to what tactics he uses against Robin Uthappa in tonight’s clash.

The middle order of RPS also boasts of Dhoni and Manoj Tiwary, both contributing but not able to stick around for more — the pain runs parallel with Pune’s batting order.

Dhoni has looked a little itchy against the spinners — leg spinners in particular. Gambhir will be aware of that and might march both Kuldeep Yadav and Sunil Narine if need be. Pressure and MS Dhoni have been friends for decades — just the time for Mahi to launch the ‘helicopter’.

 

 

Pune’s bowling is led by the South African spinner Imran Tahir — 16 wickets from 10 games. The 37-year-old leg-spinner has been in sensational form this IPL season.

The Proteas ‘googly’ and ‘wrong one’ is a skill yet to be outmatched by the opposition players. Coach Stephan Fleming will be very pleased with the way he has come to the sides rescue throughout the tournament.

Washington Sundar, Jaydev Unadkat and Shardul Thakur have also played a very important role of the second fiddle to Tahir.

Pune Supergiant may have been slow to start but can be a potential dark horse none of the seven teams in IPL is aware of.

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The pitch at the iconic Eden Gardens has a tinge of grass and suits the pace bowlers. Both the captains will want to bat second and use the movement early on in the first half of the game.

Playing in front of home crowd, Kolkata Knight Riders have never lost a match while chasing since 2012, but the confident Gautam Gambhir side will be an even match even if they come to open first.

Pune Supergiant is rising with one step at a time. Tonight Steve Smith will want all their boxes to tick by the time the day ends — and a step closer to the top two before the play-offs.

For the uninitiated, Eden Gardens and cricket — cocktail!

First Published | 3 May 2017 4:45 PM
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