It’s fair to assume that not too many people would have predicted Kolkata Knight Riders to be in the position they are right now – one win away from the title clash – when the UAE leg of the Indian Premier League commenced a little more than three weeks ago.
Five losses in the seven games during the Indian summer had pushed them to seventh position on the table, and prompted head coach Brendon McCullum to chastise his players for being “paralysed a little bit by fear.”
McCullum and KKR skipper Eoin Morgan made their names by playing fearless cricket, also a feature of teams that they led. But turning words into action is easier said than done.
However, what has transpired in the Arabian desert over the last few weeks is a transformation in the way a team plays. Results are not always an accurate yardstick of change, but tell the story in this case.
Five wins in their next seven fixtures took KKR into the Playoffs in fourth place – they were certainly helped by a sudden decline in Mumbai Indians’ fortunes – and after beating Royal Challengers Bangalore in the Eliminator, they now just have to overcome Delhi Capitals to book a place in Friday’s final against Chennai Super Kings and have a shot at their third IPL title.
One look at the KKR squad would show that there are no megastars there. Not many would have heard of Venkatesh Iyer before the UAE leg of the tournament, but he has turned into a revelation. His opening combination with Shubman Gill has been one of the main reasons for the turnaround. World Cup-winning captain Morgan is woefully short of runs himself, but his tactical nous, big-game experience and motivational skills often give KKR an edge. Their overseas players are not icons, but essentially utility men who could do a job under the given circumstances. That’s why there is more rotation among KKR’s foreign contingent than may be the case with other teams.
This also ensures that the side is not too dependent on a few players. Their highest run scorer this season is Rahul Tripathi with 383 runs, and he is the 12th-highest overall. Varun Chakravarthy is KKR’s highest wicket-taker with 16 scalps and he comes in 10th. This is in stark contrast to the case with Punjab Kings and RCB, for whom KL Rahul and Glenn Maxwell respectively have been the main contributors by far.
No fixed pattern
With KKR, the team is indeed the star. So, in the Eliminator against RCB, Sunil Narine is promoted in the batting order after a stellar spell with the ball and his cameo tilts the balance in their favour. Nitish Rana is not a big name, but has been sent at the crucial No. 3 slot.
With bowling stocks featuring an abundance of spin and fast bowling resources, Morgan has the luxury of matching them with match situations and the batsmen in the middle. Shakib Al Hasan is one of the premier all-rounders in world cricket, but doesn’t always get a game with KKR. When he did play in the Eliminator, the Bangladesh star took the team home in a tense chase.
All these factors have ensured that KKR have not felt the absence of Andre Russell, who has missed the last several games. In previous seasons, the team was overly reliant on the West Indian for batting impetus. In the games he played before getting injured, he was given the responsibility of bowling a full quota of overs, and often at the death.
But the likes of Lockie Ferguson and Tim Southee, and Prasidh Krishna and Shivam Mavi among Indians, have risen to the occasion.
KKR and DC have won once each in their face-offs this season, but the Kolkata franchise prevailed in the recent encounter where sparks flew between Morgan and Ravichandran Ashwin over the nebulous Spirit of Cricket after the latter took a run despite a throw hitting his batting partner.
Delhi topped the league phase but have lost their last two games, while Kolkata have won their last two.
The Capitals’ pace attack is enviable but they couldn’t prevent RCB and CSK to seal last-over wins. Steve Smith has been rare in his appearances and Marcus Stoinis has missed most of the UAE leg with injury. Their batting is largely built around Indian talent – Prithvi Shaw, Shikhar Dhawan, Shreyas Iyer, Rishabh Pant – but tapers off towards the lower-middle order.
As far as tactics are concerned, with a young captain in Pant, it’s more a case of head coach Ricky Ponting pulling strings from the dugout.
The venue is the same as the one for the Eliminator and KKR’s last league match, which should give them confidence. Significantly, they beat DC there when the two teams met a fortnight ago. The pitch there is not the easiest and their spin troika would hope to exploit it.
Kolkata is currently in a festive mood with Durga Puja celebrations in full swing. If KKR prevail on Wednesday, they will ensure that fans in the City of Joy will have something more to look forward to on Friday, which also happens to be Vijayadashami.