A South African’s plight in a knock-out match is all-too-well-known. And in those, A.B. de Villiers has often flattered to deceive. But not on Tuesday, as the maverick single-handedly carried Royal Challengers Bangalore (RCB) into its third IPL final. Ploughing a lone furrow, he finished with an unbeaten 79 (47b, 5x4, 5x5) as RCB beat Gujarat Lions by four wickets in the first qualifier at the Chinnaswamy Stadium here.

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On a pitch, which played slower than usual and possessed a fair amount for the bowlers, Dhawal Kulkarni (4-1-14-4) sliced through the RCB top-order, first reducing it to 31 for five and then 68 for six.

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But de Villiers stitched together an unbroken seventh-wicket stand of 91 runs off 53 balls with Iqbal Abdulla (33, 25b, 3x4, 1x6). What had, for long periods, seemed an anti-climax of sorts — a total around 150, a rare Virat Kohli failure and a top-order collapse from RCB is practically unheard of in these parts — was ultimately salvaged.

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Chasing 159, Kohli went for a second-ball duck, chopping one on from Dhawal. In his next over, the Mumbai pacer scalped Chris Gayle and K.L. Rahul off successive balls – the former for nine and the latter for a first-ball duck. When Shane Watson and Sachin Baby too perished within five deliveries of each other, the worst fears of the home fans came true.

But de Villiers seemed a man on a mission, executing his plans with surgical precision. Up until the 14th over, his idea was to keep RCB within touching distance of its opponents. But a slapped four and a six straight down off Dwayne Smith in the 15th over opened the floodgates as de Villiers and Abdulla finished the match on a scamper with 10 balls left.

Earlier, after electing to field, Kohli, this time around, chose Abdulla as an attacking option, introducing him in the second over, and was yet again rewarded. The left-arm spinner found turn immediately and struck gold, dismissing both Brendon McCullum and Aaron Finch in four deliveries.

The former miscued and holed out to de Villiers at deep cover while the latter edged one to Gayle at slip. And when Watson got Suresh Raina to half-heartedly steer a short ball to short fine leg – for the umpteenth time – Lions were tottering at nine for three. Arvind and Watson smothered them in the power play and restricted Lions to 23 runs in the first six overs.

But Dinesh Karthik (26, 30b, 2x4) and Smith (73, 41b, 5x4, 6x6) rebuilt Gujarat’s innings with an 85-run partnership off 61 balls. The duo was cautious at the outset with the first sign of Smith preparing to flex his muscles coming only in the seventh over when he clobbered Jordan over square leg for six. But from then on the boundaries were breached with greater regularity. The 10th over bowled by Chahal fetched 16 runs and Abdulla – after three good overs – gave away 17 runs in the 13th.

Just when it seemed that Lions were ready to step it up further, Karthik dragged a Jordan delivery on to his leg stump. The RCB bowlers gave away just 19 runs from overs 13 to 15, and Chahal – expensive on the day – dismissed Smith too.

But there was still enough sting left in the Gujarat tail. Eklavya Dwivedi and Dhawal managed to hit 20 off Watson in the 19th over, slightly tarnishing his excellent figures until then. In all Gujarat scored 54 runs in the last five overs but they still proved inadequate.