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Under the Wankhede lights, Russell serves up a T20 coronation for ages

Ask the Kolkata Knight Riders’ fans about Andre Russell’s unbeaten knock of 70 in mere 31 balls on Friday night, they will wax lyricals about the all-rounder’s ability to play game-changing knocks and they would be least surprised.

For they hold memories of his 13-ball 48 against RCB in 2019, an 80-run battering at the Eden Gardens against Mumbai Indians the same year and a whirlwind 36-ball 88 against CSK a year earlier to that just as fondly but it is often the premise and circumstances that add a flair and significance to his knocks. Friday night at the Wankhede Stadium was no different.

Chasing 138 after convincingly bowling out the Punjab Kings, the Punjab bowlers threatened to trip the Knight Riders, in a chase they were backing themselves to complete, after being reduced to 51 for 4 in the eighth over. A trial by spin awaited as leg-spinner Rahul Chahar hit the right lengths and kept the batters on their toes. At one point, the Knight Riders could only score ten runs off 23 balls while losing two wickets, that of Nitish Rana and skipper Shreyas Iyer.

What followed was a T20 coronation under the Wankhede lights.

Circumspect against Chahar, Russell launched two sixes off left-arm spinner Harpreet Brar in the tenth over that yielded 17 runs. The match-up to bowl a left-arm orthodox hadn’t quite worked for the Royal Challengers Bangalore as well just two nights ago when Russell deposited Shahbaz Ahmed twice into the stands.

The show had just begun. Bowling round-the-wicket, Odean Smith’s plan did not quite work out as he intended to, in what was a pivotal over of the game. Russell picked the bones out of his Jamaican counterpart’s full length and back-of-a-length deliveries, often clearing his front leg, as he hit him for three sixes and a boundary before Billings, too, struck a six down the ground in a 30-run over.

Russell nailed three more sixes to seal the chase in the fifteenth over but not before the stump mic picked Bhanuka Rajapaksa, the Punjab Kings wicket-keeper batter, say to Russell, “You’re too strong man.” But it was Billings who had the best seat in the house all along.

"For me, it was just about holding the game there and supporting him (Russell),” Billings said after the match. “He is the star and I wanted to let him play his game. It was about that clarity, letting him play his game. He can win a game, as we saw, in the space of five overs (7.3 overs). Baz (head coach Brendon McCullum) always backs each individual to do that and when you’ve got a world-class performer like that you see the destruction he can cause."

"He has shown, what a world-class performer he is. He is the best in the world (in power hitting) when he goes like that. He rocked up there nicely tonight. I had the best seat in the house, what a performance by the big man. I was very lucky I was stood there even though I feared for my life a couple of times."

Away from the limelight, Tim Southee quietly went about doing his work. He was involved in five dismissals- two wickets, that of Shikhar Dhawan and Shahrukh Khan, and three catches. But it was his catch off Umesh Yadav to dismiss Kagiso Rabada, who had hit four boundaries and a six to threaten a strong finish, that caught the eyes of many.

He ran 33 metres, from long-off to mid-on, and flung himself to hold on to a screamer.

“It was actually on the other side of the ground so he covered a lot of ground,” Billings said. “Moments like that can really change the game because 10-15 extra runs there at the end and if the Kings had batted for the rest of their innings, it could have changed the game.

“Yeah not bad for an old bloke (laughs)! Phenomenal catch by the big man, he’s got great hands.”