Mitchell Starc
Kolkata Knight Riders’ Mitchell Starc celebrates after taking the wicket of Sunrisers Hyderabad’s Shahbaz Ahmed during the Indian Premier League first qualifier in Ahmedabad on May 21, 2024. That was his third strike of the match. Image Credit: AFP

Mitchell Starc came with a $2.98 million price tag. The Kolkata Knight Riders fast bowler showed that he’s worth every cent with a three-wicket burst that broke the back of Sunrisers Hyderabad. KKR sealed the fate of the first qualifier right there. Hyderabad never really recovered, and Kolkata breezed to their fourth IPL final, on Tuesday.

I expected a high-scoring game in Ahmedabad. That was borne out of the fact that these are two superb batting sides, and two of the three IPL matches at the Narendra Modi Stadium had seen a run deluge. In such encounters, the better bowling team wins.

That was what happened as Kolkata romped to victory. Starc struck with the second ball, beating the defences of his fellow Australian Phil Head to seize the initiative, which Kolkata never surrendered through the rest of the game.

The key wicket

Head’s wicket was crucial. He had been providing supersonic starts for Hyderabad, who have been amassing huge totals. The loss of the other opener, Abhishek Sharma, to Vaibhav Arora exacerbated matters before Starc struck twice more to send Hyderbad reeling. They never recovered, although Rahul Tripathi and Heinrich Klassen threatened briefly before mystery spinner Varun Chakravarthy snuffed out their aspirations.

Starc’s deadly initial spell (3-0-22-3) wasn’t expected. He had struggled throughout the season to strike a rhythm, and has been very expensive. The pickings were slim too. It was hard to believe that the same bowler killed off India’s hopes in the 50-over World Cup final last year.

The Narendra Modi Stadium seems to be Starc’s favourite hunting ground. In the 2023 World Cup final, he grabbed three wickets to push India on the backfoot. For a bowler who regularly clocks over 140km/h, Starc showcased his white-ball cricket skills with slower deliveries, including slow bouncers, and yorkers to confound the Indian batsmen. Again, he wasn’t potent throughout the World Cup and was dropped for some matches, but he returned to his best in the final to deny India.

Six months later, he has led Kolkata’s IPL title charge in Ahmedabad with his trademark left-arm pace bowling. If the second ball swung in and seamed away to knock back Head’s stump, prolific scorer Nitish Kumar Reddy couldn’t get under a delivery that was too fast and too steep, and he ended up top-edging it. Shahbaz Ahmed hardly knew anything about the next delivery that rattled the stumps, and Starc was soon wheeling away in celebration.

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Three blows, three decisive blows, knocked the wind out of Hyderabad’s sails, and they finished with 159 (KKR overhauled it with eight wickets and 38 balls to spare). The parallel with India’s World Cup match is inescapable. Hyderabad couldn’t get going after that. Even the Tripathi-Klassen partnership only seemed to delay the inevitable. The Starc specials had done Hyderabad in. Little wonder, he was named the Player of the Match.

How does he do it? Starc’s big-match temperament is incredible. With 14 years of international cricket behind him, the tall left-arm pacer reserves his best for big occasions. He’s unfazed by the task at hand and often produces splendid spells that impact the game. With every wicket, Starc’s smile grows broader. He relishes the moment and thrives in it. Tuesday was one such day.

Starc still has work to do. He has to reproduce the form in the final at Chepauk on Sunday. A clutch of wickets from the Australian will set up Kolkata for their third championship. If that happens, Starc would have earned his $2.98 million payday. KKR might even give him a bonus.