Only once in the past had a team bowled five straight overs of spin to start an IPL innings. That was the Kolkata Knight Riders as well, back in 2014 against the Chennai Super Kings in Ranchi.
Seven years later, it was once again the Knight Riders who went all-spin through the first five overs of an IPL innings. What might their thinking have been?
Part of the reason for this could have been Mumbai’s opening combination. In IPL matches since the start of 2019, Rohit Sharma had averaged 13.16 and struck at 98.75 against spin in the powerplay as against 41.33 and 131.44 against pace, before this game. In the same period, Quinton de Kock had managed a strike rate of only 101.65 against spin in the powerplay as compared to 149.85 against pace.
Given this, the Knight Riders may have preferred having their spinners bowl as much as possible when one or both of the openers were in the middle, rather than later on, against Ishan Kishan, Hardik Pandya, Kieron Pollard and Krunal Pandya, who are all fearsome six-hitters against spin.
One other reason behind the Knight Riders front-loading with spin could have been the possibility of dew setting in as the evening progressed. The team may have decided to allow the spinners to bowl the bulk of their overs with a relatively dry ball, rather than come up against those middle-order six-hitters with their grip on the ball compromised.
Andre Russell finished the innings with a five-wicket haul in only 12 balls, which may have left viewers wondering why the Knight Riders didn’t use him earlier.
The answer lies in Russell’s creaking knees, which force the Knight Riders to use his bowling only sparingly and only seldom get four overs out of him. Even across two overs, though, he remains a valuable bowler at the death, as he showed today with his smart use of angles – around the wicket to right-hand batsmen and over the wicket to left-handers – to keep the ball away from the batsmen’s natural hitting arc and make it extremely difficult for them to access the leg side.
Rohit Sharma was once a fairly regular white-ball bowler, and even took an IPL hat-trick in 2009, but those days are long gone, thanks to injuries that have curtailed his bowling. So why did he bring himself on today, and bowl for the first time since IPL 2014?
Given the turn on offer at Chepauk, and also the two-paced nature of the surface, Rohit may well have been mentally prepared to bowl even before the match began, to fulfill the role of Mumbai’s third spinner in case two left-handers were at the crease, given that both their frontline spinners turn the ball into the left-hander.
When the 14th over began, the Knight Riders had two left-handers in the middle: a set Nitish Rana and a new-to-the-crease Shakib Al Hasan. Rohit came close to twisting his ankle before he’d even bowled his first ball, but he eventually managed to send down six reasonable deliveries, one of which nearly had Shakib inside-edging onto his stumps.
The other reason Rohit bowled himself may have been to allow Krunal Pandya to come on when Dinesh Karthik and then Andre Russell came to the middle. On this slow turner, Russell in particular struggled to get to grips with Krunal’s changes of pace, and could have been out twice.
The very best spinners defeat batsmen in the air with drift and dip, but sometimes you can beat a batsman for length by other means too. When Shakib swept Krunal straight into the hands of deep square leg in the 16th over of the Knight Riders innings, it appeared like a routine T20 dismissal – an aggressive shot not quite managing to evade a deep fielder.
But replays suggested Krunal may have earned the wicket – at least partially – with a bit of trickery. Rather than releasing the ball as he normally would, Krunal delivered this one from well behind the crease, when he was roughly adjacent to the stumps. This may have caused Shakib to misjudge the length of the ball, and miscue his attempted sweep.
Experts often talk about the use of the crease while bowling, but that’s usually restricted to the width of the crease. Krunal may well cause them to start talking about the use of its depth as well.