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Consistent Kings XI Punjab take on buoyant KKR

KOLKATA: No team this season have scored their runs as quickly as Kings XI Punjab. Their tournament run-rate, so far, is 9.03, which means they have scored nearly half a run more in every over than the second-best team on that list, Chennai Super Kings (CSK) (8.35). No team this season has been as frugal with the ball as Kolkata Knight Riders (KKR). Their tournament economy rate, so far, is 7.63, which is a healthy distance ahead of Mumbai Indians’ 7.93.

The first Qualifier, then, will pit the top two teams in the tournament against each other, the best batting unit against the best bowling attack. Most of the time, it’s overly simplistic to consider just half of the contest. It would be particularly simplistic in this case, considering Robin Uthappa, a KKR batsman, is the tournament’s highest run-getter, and Kings XI have taken the most wickets of any team this season. Even so, it’s hard to look beyond Kings XI’s batting line-up as the most decisive element of the game.

Six times this season, they’ve scored 190 or more, and three of those scores came in successful chases. They are yet to lose a game batting second. Batting first, they have failed to cross 150 only twice. Both those sub-150 scores, however, came against KKR. Two matches is too small a sample size from which to draw conclusive evidence that KKR know the formula to keep Glenn Maxwell and his mates quiet, but given the bowling attack at their disposal and the fact that they are playing at home, you could see it happening again.

Consider, also, that KKR finished second on the points table on the back of seven straight wins, and that most of their players have hit form coming into the knockouts. Kings XI, on the other hand, have tailed off somewhat despite their results remaining solid enough. They rotated their squad after sealing a top-two place, and some of their early-season form players - Maxwell and Sandeep Sharma, in particular - haven’t had a great time of late. Given the low-intensity nature of their last few league games, though, Kings XI will welcome the spike in energy and intensity that comes with a knockout game.

League meetings: Before the first meeting between these two sides, Kings XI’s batting had looked unstoppable, having scored 206, 193 (both of these in successful chases) and 193 in their first three matches. And then, sent in to bat in Abu Dhabi, they struggled to 132 for nine, with Sunil Narine and Piyush Chawla taking three wickets each. KKR, however, were yet to sort out their batting, and they collapsed to 109 all out. By the time the sides faced each other again, KKRs’ top order was beginning to find some form. Set a target of 150, after a Kings XI innings in which no one apart from Virender Sehwag made any serious contribution, KKR won by nine wickets, after Robin Uthappa and Gautam Gambhir put on a third straight 50-plus opening partnership.

Watch out for: Since the IPL moved back to India, Glenn Maxwell’s form has tailed off. Seventeen batsmen have outscored him in the India leg, and even though his numbers here - 233 runs at an average of 29.12 and a strike rate of 180.62 - look ordinary only in comparison to the mindblowing stats he racked up in the UAE - 300 runs at 60.00 and a strike rate of over 200 - they are propped up to a large extent by one innings, a 38-ball 90 against CSK in Ranchi.

Against KKR, meanwhile, his scores so far are 15 and 14. Of the 26 balls he faced across those two innings, 24 were bowled by Sunil Narine, Morne Morkel and Jacques Kallis, so KKR have clearly gone in with some sort of plan against him. Morkel’s bounce is a particularly obvious weapon KKR will look to use against Maxwell, particularly after his last innings against Delhi Daredevils, in which he looked uncomfortable against the rising ball. Since moving up to open the batting, Robin Uthappa has made nine successive 40-plus scores and climbed to the top of the tournament’s run charts.

He has done this largely by means of easy-on-the-eye drives, with a remodelled technique built around a big front-foot stride and a batswing that comes down from almost behind his body. It’s a technique built for playing in the V, but - if he weren’t seeing the ball so well - it could, theoretically, put him in unsound positions against the short ball as well as cause him to play around his front pad while on-driving and flicking off his pads, bringing lbw into play. Mitchell Johnson is one bowler who could potentially exploit both these technical issues.

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Aaj Kal