To say Kolkata Knight Riders faced a mountain ahead of the UAE leg would be doing a disservice to mountains.
Only Sunrisers Hyderabad had fewer wins than KKR’s two; only Sunrisers Hyderabad had a worse net run rate than KKR’s -0.494. They were four points away from the qualifying spots. Their coach had publicly lashed out at their performances at the halfway stage of the campaign.
As if that wasn’t enough, their first four games upon resumption were against Royal Challengers Bangalore, Mumbai Indians, Chennai Super Kings and Delhi Capitals – the top-four, as it stood, at the time the league was suspended in May.
However, the picture – as they’ve shown us – was far from over.
KKR – having missed the cut on net run rate in each of the last two seasons – are all but through to the IPL 2021 playoffs. In poetic fashion, they are going to do so on net run rate, at the expense of the defending champions.
This is the story of their remarkable turnaround.
“If You Can’t Change a Man, Change The Man”
If the IPL hadn’t been suspended in May, there’s a decent chance a few members of the KKR setup would’ve found themselves relegated to the bench for their eighth game of the season.
A fuming Brendon McCullum had torn into the approach being taken by some of his players, especially the batters, and it wouldn’t be a stretch to say that the likes of Shubman Gill, Nitish Rana and even the skipper Eoin Morgan might have been fearing for their spots in the XI.
As it turned out, two men who didn’t get a single game in India became ever-present in the UAE (barring injury) – Venkatesh Iyer and Lockie Ferguson – and both have been key to the turnaround.
To McCullum’s joy, aside from the external changes, things changed internally too.
Batting intent lay at the core of McCullum’s New Zealand, when he stamped his brand of cricket on the Kiwis in his years as captain; the same formed the core of Morgan’s New England, the one he transformed from no-hopers in 2015 to world champions in 2019. As KKR limped their way with the bat in the first half, the irony of such a display under the combined reign of McCullum and Morgan was lost on no one.
At first glance, the numbers don’t reflect a major change in batting ideology – KKR’s scoring rate only increased marginally, from 8.17 during the India leg to 8.19 in the UAE.
The difference, however, lies here: KKR’s scoring rate of 8.17 was somewhat below the tournament average of 8.40 for the India leg; their rate of 8.19 per over has been well above the tournament average for the second half, which lies at 7.53 (as of the end of match 54).
Their starts in the first half were not just slow, but also shaky: KKR had an average Powerplay score of 44/2 before the league’s suspension. In the UAE – where run-scoring, in general, only got trickier – they improved to an average Powerplay total of 48/1.
Identifying Iyer, Getting More from Gill
The face of the KKR facelift, without doubt, has been Venkatesh Iyer.
In just his first two IPL outings, the 26-year-old took the league – and the teams led by India’s two biggest names – by storm: 41* off 27 balls against RCB, 53 off 30 balls versus MI. Did anyone say intent?
Iyer’s storming entry also allowed an instant correction of the net run rate situation for KKR – they chased down RCB’s 92 in 10 overs, and mowed down MI’s 155 in 15.1 overs – and the second of those results, in particular, has been telling to the final points tally.
Iyer finishes the league stage with 239 runs in seven outings, at a healthy scoring rate of 7.75 runs per over. He’s also managed to make a contribution with the ball, taking 2/29 while performing the role of the fifth bowler in KKR’s win over table-toppers Delhi Capitals.
In Shubman Gill’s case, the run-scoring may not have been as ramped up (7.21 per over in the UAE, compared to 7.07 in India), but he’s gone from mustering only 132 runs in the seven games in India to accumulating 220 runs in seven outings in the UAE.
Tellingly, he stamped himself on the two must-win games to close out the league stage – scoring a patient 57(51) in a chase of 116 against Sunrisers, and making 56(44) to set KKR on their way to 170 against Rajasthan Royals (which was the highest total at Sharjah this season).
Amid the not-so-merry-go-round that was KKR 2020, few could have a more justified sense of frustration than Rahul Tripathi: of his 11 innings last season, five came as opener, three at number three, two at number seven and one as low as number eight. This for a batter with fairly well-established top-order credentials in the IPL.
In IPL 2021, Tripathi was given a constant role at number three; he repaid the faith by being one of KKR’s only constants through the two phases of the tournament. India or UAE, pace or spin, powerplay or middle overs – Tripathi has triumphed in all scenarios.
He has been KKR’s leading run-getter, and is among the top-ten in the tournament. Among the batters with more runs than Tripathi, only Glenn Maxwell has a better scoring rate – and not by much, at 8.79 per over. Among those who have played more than five innings in the top-three, only three batters have scored faster than him: Prithvi Shaw, Jos Buttler and Yashasvi Jaiswal.
The trust has reaped its rewards for KKR.
Bowling Bulks Up in the UAE
While the batting improvements have been more highlighted in general discourse, it is the bowling department where KKR have taken an almost 180-degree turn in the second half of the season.
During the India leg, only RR had a worse economy rate than KKR’s 8.61; only PBKS had a worse average than KKR’s 30.68; and with only 38 wickets in seven matches, KKR were the equal-least incisive team of the first half.
In the UAE, only DC have bettered KKR’s frugal economy of 6.78; no one has matched their average of 16.32; and 56 wickets, KKR finish well clear of anyone else in the wicket-taking stakes (even accounting for a 10-wicket showing from all the teams playing on Friday).
In India, KKR were carted for 200+ scores at venues as varied as Chepauk (by RCB) and Wankhede (by CSK) – their pacers took wickets, but were extremely leaky; the spinners fared slightly better on economy, but struggled to make in-roads.
Post-resumption, the spinners have excelled at wicket-taking while simultaneously applying a chokehold on batters; the pacers, as they showed in the demolition of RR on Thursday, are having quite the ball too.
Between them, Varun Chakravarthy and Sunil Narine have taken 16 wickets in the seven games KKR have played in the UAE – while conceding only 5.71 runs per over. By adding Shakib al Hasan to the mix (he featured in the last two must-win games, taking 2/21 in five overs), KKR have given themselves the luxury of 12 potential overs of strangling the opposition.
Add to that Lockie Ferguson’s timely return to fitness – the Kiwi quick has 10 wickets from five outings in the second leg, at an economy of 6.22 – and Shivam Mavi doing the disciplined job when required, this makes for a quite discomforting bowling lineup.
With the Eliminator and Qualifier 2 both at Sharjah, this attack could yet prove to be the clincher if KKR are to clinch a spot in an IPL final for the first time in seven years.
Making the Most of Matchups
You’ll be hard-pressed to find a coach-captain combine more into the T20-defining world of match-ups than McCullum and Morgan.
It is still, for many, an evolving science, the misreading of which has actually worked in the favour of KKR – and more specifically Nitish Rana – in just this UAE leg itself. Both DC and RR fell prey to the lazy convention that left-handed batters don’t like facing off-spin, not accounting that Rana, a massive outlier, actually scores at nearly ten runs per over against off-spin in the IPL. The bit-part off-spin of Lalit Yadav and Glenn Phillips was duly dispatched for a combined 30 runs off just 13 balls by Rana.
Old-timers in the commentary box may often criticise teams for what they believe is ‘reading too much into data’, but the advantage of McCullum and Morgan’s ‘obsession’ is that they are least likely to make these rudimentary errors of match-up judgment.
The standout examples of KKR’s usage of the match-up cards came in opposing ends of their league stage campaign. In their season-opener, with Narine injured, KKR fielded Harbhajan Singh – who had dismissed David Warner thrice in his four most recent outings against the Australian. Harbhajan bowled the first over; Warner was dismissed in the second over; Harbhajan didn’t get the ball again in the game. In their most recent outing, KKR decided to bring Shivam Mavi back into the XI; Mavi had dismissed Sanju Samson thrice in the space of 16 balls, across four innings – he took only one ball to extend his stronghold on the battle.
With the likes of Virat Kohli, Glenn Maxwell and AB de Villiers in their sights come the Eliminator, don’t rule out something out-of-the-ordinary from the KKR camp.
A Sub-Par Bottom Half
As much as KKR deserve all the praise for their stirring recovery, it is worth acknowledging that the bottom-half of the IPL this season didn’t set quite as high a standard as we’ve seen in the league in recent times.
Sunrisers Hyderabad’s woes saw them plummet low enough for a team to finish an IPL season with a single-digit points tally for the first time since 2017 – a captaincy change, an awkward severing of ties with a club legend, never finding the right combination… it all went quite pear-shaped for the Orange Army.
Rajasthan Royals suffered from the absence of three global superstars in Jofra Archer, Jos Buttler and Ben Stokes – despite making shrewd replacement signings, it’s an unenviable position to find yourselves in when you lose the three biggest names in your squad. Their only ‘back-to-back’ wins all season were separated by a four-month suspension of the tournament.
Speaking of inconsistency: W-L-L-L-W-L-W-L-L-W-L-W-L-W. 25 players used across 14 games. Finding defeat from inside the bowels of victory. Finding little room for decipherable strategy. You know who, surely?
That Mumbai Indians, in possibly their worst campaign of the last eight years, plagued by an almost-entirely out-of-form batting lineup, were mathematically alive till the last round tells you a bit about the gulf between the top-three and the rest of the tree.
Don’t let that take the sheen away from the KKR comeback: how many teams can find themselves pushed as much into a corner, lose their single-biggest match-winner for the final stretch, and still live to tell their tale come the playoffs?
The last time we had a part-India-part-UAE IPL, KKR tanked the first leg (two wins out of five), made up for it in the second leg (seven wins out of nine) – and eventually went the distance. The chronology of the venues has changed, but the sequence of events, so far, has been strikingly similar. Kolkata Knight Riders: it couldn’t be, could it?