Muscle-Russell slays the SRH challenge

Up until 17 overs in their defence of 181 – and for a total of first-37 overs in their IPL 2019 season opener – Sunrisers Hyderabad had done most things right apart from calling correctly at the toss. David Warner lit up IPL in his comeback game like he was never gone, setting SRH up for a competitive total. The 2018 finalists at last found a finishing act in Vijay Shankar’s unbeaten 40, the league’s most potent bowling attack had then strangled Kolkata Knight Riders’ chase in their own den, pinning them to 119 for 3 at 15.2 overs when one of the four floodlight towers went kaput.

The break forced two teams off the field for 13 minutes, where a very animated Warner did most of the talking in the SRH dugout while on the KKR side, the attention was drawn to one of the two unbeaten batsmen, Andre Russell, taking throw-downs from Simon Katich and, rather uncharacteristically, only driving it back to the team’s batting coach.

SRH had taken the punt on Rashid Khan and bowled him out by the floodlight-failure hit 16th over, at the halfway mark of which he sent a well-set Nitish Rana packing, as soon as action resumed. If that wasn’t the second ominous sign in the over for an already lagging KKR, Bhuvneshwar Kumar returned for his death overs spell and bowled an exceptional 17th for just six runs. The equation was down to an improbable 53 off 18 – that had historically never before been chased in 11 previous editions of IPL – with two relatively new batsmen in the middle and an over each of Siddarth Kaul and Bhuvneshwar left, who had given only 16 each in their first-three.

Except, one of those two batsmen was Russell, and the jam-packed Eden Gardens were looking heavenwards and not at the exit gates just yet. This was still SRH’s game to lose, but Russell comes with the reputation of defying mathematical logic for fun. What makes the knock even more special is the fact that Russell had averaged just six with the bat against SRH coming into the contest. As things panned out on Sunday, the allrounder struck four fours and four towering sixes – taking 49 off just 19 deliveries – to play the role of KKR’s senior finisher to the hilt.

Kaul, with figures of 3-0-16-1, returned for the 18th over only to be clobbered all over the park. He fluffed up his length twice and Russell duly punished him for back sixes to keep the Kolkata faithful engrossed, and then a cover boundary off the fifth ball followed by a single to bring the equation down to 34 off 12 and, more importantly, retain strike for the crucial penultimate over that was to follow.

Despite having leaked 19 off the over – the costliest of the night thus far – SRH, who proudly wear the tag of the best bowling attack in the league, were still the favourites. Because? The seasoned leader of that bowling attack was up next.

But when Bhuvneshwar missed two attempted yorkers consecutively, that landed right in the slot for Russell, he got his front leg out of the way quickly and whacked the first to midwicket fence and second deep into the stands.

Those two shots were the proverbial turning point in the contest within the contest that started in the 17th over when Bhuvneshwar cramped Russell up for room inside his crease ball after ball. Having lost their skipper Dinesh Karthik, a remodelled T20 finisher, to a tame dismissal earlier, KKR’s chances hinged on the experienced Russell who had, many a time before, done the unthinkable. And while Bhuvneshwar might have won the first half of the battle, he had done little to rattle Russell’s confidence in his own ability to pull a rabbit out of the hat.

Those two morale-boosting hits later, as the equation trickled down to 24 off 10, Russell had mostly done what he set out for. Now was the time to have some fun. Russell flexed his muscles, took a good look at the field around, and readied himself again amidst the deafening chants. When Bhuvneshwar did get a yorker right, off the third ball, the West Indian still found a way to bludgeon it past a diving mid-off fielder for another four. He had owed this to the Kolkata crowd after his no-show last November.

Such was Russell’s luck that even as he nearly fell trying to club one from outside off one ball later, he managed to toe-end it into the stands for a six. The unbelievable heist hit the 50-run mark there – off just 20 balls – and Shubman Gill had only run-a-ball six against his name. Having done the bulk of scoring already, Russell again took a single off the last ball to keep the strike with himself even as the hosts needed only 13 off the final over.

Gill took centre stage from there on, and needed just two hit-me balls from Shakib al Hasan to seal the deal, but it was Russell’s relentless attack that startled Eden Gardens and the entire SRH contingent. A spellbound Rashid, who had hardly put a foot wrong on the night, couldn’t stop redirecting attention to Russel’s “special knock” that snatched victory for KKR from the jaws of a certain defeat despite being behind the eightball for 37 overs.

“After the [floodlight failure] break, we got a wicket also that we wanted – Nitish Rana’s – and that gave us the momentum as well… At Eden Gardens, 170-180 is defendable. We put up a good total on the board, but we couldn’t finish well in the final three overs. He [Russell] played amazing cricket, and played all the shots there are,” Rashid said, fielding questions on the unexpected defeat.

“I think it does make a difference in the game when you play special knocks like that. If you score three times the runs in few balls… like Russell, the way he played, he totally changed the face of the game. Knocks like that from the lower order are very crucial in T20 cricket. It can take scores from 150 to 180, and from 180 to 210. So we’ll have this in the back of our mind, going forward, to have someone with that ability. Having said, we batted well and put up a good total on the board. We were in the game till the 17th over, but just couldn’t finish it off. Russell just took the game away from us with that knock.”

Rana, who was promoted to open in order to afford the injured Sunil Narine some downtime, had his equally crucial 47-ball contribution worth 68 quickly overlooked but couldn’t stop gushing about the Russell carnage. “I cannot describe his batting in words even if I wanted to,” Rana said of his teammate’s blitzkrieg. “It was unbelievable batting. We needed 53 off 18 and won the match with two balls to spare – that’s how capable he is.

“We know Russell is capable [of finishing games from difficult situations], and we’ve known about Russell’s ability for a long time now. We trust him to win games for us [from improbable situations]. Our game plan was to take it as deep as possible and then, whatever was needed, we’d leave it to Russell. We’re glad it worked out exactly like that for us.” the ad-hoc KKR opener noted.

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