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KKR play for play-offs spot, RCB to stay alive

- Prospect of Gayle vs Narine showdown talk of the town

Calcutta: Five wins in a row and only one away from equalling their all-time best of six achieved during their successful 2012 campaign. There seems to be no stopping Gautam Gambhir’s men!

A little over a month back not many gave the Kolkata Knight Riders a chance before the start of IPL VII. Royal Challengers Bangalore were the punters’ favourite along with the Chennai Super Kings.

As the tournament nears the business end, the Knight Riders are only a win away from confirming their play-offs berth while the Royal Challengers are placed fifth in the standings with 10 points from 12 matches. In fact, the Royal Challengers did the Knight Riders a favour by losing to the Sunrisers Hyderabad in their last match.

For Virat Kohli and Co., Thursday’s match at the Eden will be their last chance to keep themselves in the reckoning for a last-four berth. Only victories in their remaining two matches will give them a chance of making it to the last-four, though much will also depend on the results of other matches.

Despite the presence of big guns like Chris Gayle, AB de Villiers, Yuvraj Singh and Kohli, the Royal Challengers have failed to perform as a unit. The Knight Riders have achieved success mainly because of the concerted and combined effort of their players.

“Self-belief and having the right environment in the team have contributed to this success,” reasoned assistant coach Vijay Dahiya on Wednesday.

The Knight Riders have peaked at the right time after losing a couple of close matches during the UAE leg. They have picked the right combinations depending on the conditions and haven’t spared the big names either. Jacques Kallis has found himself out of the XI in the last few matches. Even Morne Morkel didn’t find favour against the Super Kings.

“The team spirit has been superb…There have been occasions when Kallis himself opted out,” said Dahiya.

After the resounding victory against the Super Kings, the players spent the day taking part in promotionals in the city. Star all-rounder Shakib-al Hasan took a break and left for hometown Dhaka. He was back with the team in the evening.

The consistent good starts provided by the openers since Robin Uthappa was promoted in the batting order has proved to be the masterstroke for the side. Uthappa’s presence provides stability and not without reason he finds himself at the second spot among batsmen with 489 runs.

With scores of 47, 65, 47, 46, 80, 40 and 67 since he turned opener, Uthappa has almost single-handedly changed the fortunes of the side. His confidence has percolated down the order as was evident through useful contributions from Yusuf Pathan and Shakib-al Hasan in the last two matches.

Together with Gambhir, he forms a superb partnership with his flamboyant ways.

“As an opening batsman, it’s very important to give the team a good start. It’s good to have the momentum going our way. The confidence is good for both of us. Gautam and I understand that very well…

“We play to our plan and we complement each other well… We run very well between the wickets and egg each other on. We don’t really think about the pressure. We just think of going out there and doing our job,” explained Uthappa after the victory against Chennai Super Kings.

That the Knight Riders have a favourable 7-6 record against the Royal Challengers in the IPL augurs well for the side.

For the Royal Challengers, the poor form of Gayle has played a huge role in their flop show. Gayle, in particular, has been a pale shadow of the destructive batsman he is known to be.

But don’t forget Gayle’s awesome record against the Knight Riders. The West Indian has scores of 102, 38, 2, 86, 85 and 33 in six innings he’s played against the Knight Riders at a strike-rate of 157.99.

It will be interesting to see how Gayle plays compatriot Sunil Narine. No batsman has been comfortable playing the off-spinner so far. Does Gayle know the secret of playing Narine, his West Indies teammate?

If lack of momentum in the top-order has been a problem for the Royal Challengers, the performance of their bowlers have only complicated matters. Not without reason, bowling coach Allan Donald worked overtime during the optional session on Wednesday evening.

Equally important will be how the players cope with the extreme heat and humidity in what will be the only 4 pm match at the Eden this time. The spinners, as was evident during the first match here, are sure to play a key role as against the pacers. The Super Kings had erred in team selection and the Royal Challengers wouldn’t like to commit the same mistake.

TEAMS

Kolkata Knight Riders (likely): Robin Uthappa, Gautam Gambhir, Manish Pandey, Yusuf Pathan, Shakib-al Hasan, Ryan ten Doeschate, Suryakumar Yadav, Piyush Chawla, Pat Cummins/Morne Morkel, Umesh Yadav, Sunil Narine.

Royal Challengers Bangalore (likely): Chris Gayle, Parthiv Patel, Virat Kohli, Yuvraj Singh. AB de Villiers, Sachin Rana, Mitchell Starc, Muttiah Muralidharan, Yuzvendra Chahal, Abu Nechim, Varun Aaron.

Umpires: Bruce Oxenford, C. Shamshuddin. TV: Rajesh Deshpande

Match Referee: Javagal Srinath

Match starts: 4 pm.