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Match Analysis

Narine, Buttler, and a tale of two tons

Narine did everything in his power to propel KKR but Buttler stood in their way with another 'I'm him' performance

Ashish Pant
Sunil Narine did almost everything in his power to keep Kolkata Knight Riders in the hunt for their fifth win of the season. He became just the third KKR batter to score a century, taking them to 223. He bowled with an economy rate of 7.5, the best among all 11 bowlers on display. He picked up two key wickets, and caught the opposition captain back-peddling from mid-on.
Yet he finished on the wrong side of the result. And that's because Jos Buttler happened.
Buttler was going nowhere with his innings. Having missed the previous game with an injury, he came in as an Impact Player in the second innings, his left hamstring still heavily strapped. It's not been the brightest IPL 2024 for Buttler. Before Tuesday, outside of the unbeaten 100 against Royal Challengers Bengaluru, his highest score was 13. Against KKR, too, he looked scratchy initially.
At the end of 14 overs, Buttler was only striking at 127.27. The asking rate for Royals had surged to 16 with just four wickets in hand. ESPNcricinfo's forecaster at this stage had given Royals a 0.44% chance of a win.
But Buttler thrives in these situations. With only the lower order for company, he nonchalantly flicked a switch and ransacked every bowler that came in his way. Fast bowler, mystery spinner - he didn't care. Buttler's first 42 runs took 34 balls, his next 65 needed only 26 balls. He faced each of the last 18 balls of the chase, declined singles, clearly looked exhausted and in pain but still took his side to the joint-highest successful chase in the IPL.
Narine and Buttler's centuries had one commonality: not to throw away a start. At various stages, they found themselves in a tangle. Narine was at one point on 13 off 14 inside the powerplay. Buttler managed only 22 off 21 balls between overs six to 14. But the thing about great players is they can notch up a gear and hurt the opposition when it matters.
Narine did that by ripping to shreds two of Royals' biggest threats - R Ashwin and Yuzvendra Chahal. Ashwin eats up left-handers for breakfast. In the history of IPL, he has 61 wickets against left-handers (joint-highest with Lasith Malinga) at an economy rate under 6.50. The next name on that list is Chahal, who has 60. Chahal has also picked up the most wickets in the middle phase in IPL 2024, and is the current purple cap holder.
Someone forgot to give Narine that memo.
Coming into the match, Narine had smashed Ashwin for 60 runs in 22 balls in the IPL. By the end of the game, that tally went up to 94 off 39 balls. Ashwin was forced into bowling a defensive outside-the-off-stump line. Only one of the 17 balls he bowled to Narine was hitting the stumps. And yet that didn't stop the opener from carting him away for four fours and two sixes. Narine's takedown of Chahal was even more dismissive: 33 off 11 balls, with two fours and three sixes.
Sixty-seven runs off 28 balls at a strike rate of 239.3 against two premier spinners in the opposition.
Narine's consistency in IPL 2024 is unfathomable considering he averaged 7.75 in 2021, 8.87 in 2022 and 3.00 in 2023, though he primarily batted lower down the order in those seasons. This year, he has already scored 276 runs in six innings and is currently third in the race for the orange cap. It is no coincidence that Gautam Gambhir's return to KKR has given Narine's batting career a second wind. After all, it was Gambhir, who had back in 2017 given Narine the license to go slam-bang at the top.
"I think with GG [Gambir] coming back, he gave me the confidence and assurance that I will open the batting, and out of the 14 games, just try to do good in about three or four to give the team a good start," Narine told the host broadcasters. "The job is just to go out there and try to give a good start. Whatever situation is there, still keep going because if you try to face dot balls in the powerplay, it can hurt you down at the back end, so just go out there and get your team as much of a good start as possible."
At the halfway stage, Narine would have thought he had done enough. Until Buttler intervened.
After struggling for most of his innings, Buttler broke free in the 15th over. The first six balls that Varun Chakravarthy bowled to Buttler in the match were only picked away for four runs; the next six were taken for 22. Buttler struck Chakravarthy for four fours in the 15th and got good support from Rovman Powell over the next two overs. But once Powell fell, Buttler knew it was just going to be him vs KKR.
Royals at this stage needed 46 off 18. Mitchell Starc bowled the 18th over and was clobbered for a four and six in an over that went for 18. With 28 needed off 12, Shreyas Iyer asked youngster Harshit Rana to step up. He had already done that twice this season. In KKR's opening match of the IPL, he defended seven off five against a rampaging Heinrich Klaasen. Against Lucknow Super Giants, he had befuddled Nicholas Pooran with his change of pace.
Rana went with his tried-and-tested slower ball again. But Buttler was having none of it. The first ball of the over, a length ball on middle was swatted away miles over deep midwicket. Rana then went pace on and was taken for a four and six. From the depths of 128 for 6 after 14.1 overs, Buttler had lifted Royals to within touching distance of a memorable win. They needed just nine off the final over, and Buttler kept his composure to complete a stunning heist.
"Keep believing, that was the real key today. Felt like at times, I was just struggling a little bit for rhythm," Buttler said after the match. "At times you sort of feel frustrated or you are questioning yourself. I was just telling myself, it's okay, just keep going. At some point, you will get your rhythm back. There have been plenty of times throughout the IPL, you have seen crazy things happen. Guys like [MS] Dhoni and [Virat] Kohli, the way they stay till the end and keep believing. You have seen it so many times in the IPL, and I was trying to do the same."
As Narine reached his first century in T20 cricket off 49 balls, he punched the air, leapt in delight, and embraced Andre Russell in a bear hug, smiling ear to ear. For someone who shows such little emotion, this was akin to Sreesanth swinging his bat wildly after hitting Andre Nel for six in Johannesburg in 2006. The sort of all-round brilliance Narine displayed would be enough for a win on most days. And it would have been against Royals as well, if not for Buttler coming up with another "I'm him" performance.

Ashish Pant is a sub-editor with ESPNcricinfo