A video promoting the Kolkata Knight Riders (KKR) on social media, titled 'Get Ready for KKR 2017', starts with the times when things did not go well for the team. There are visuals of the team losing wickets, a grim-faced co-owner Shah Rukh Khan, and that of Andre Russell dropping a catch. The visual then changes to the same Russell puffing out his chest, drawing a deep breath and shattering the stumps of the batsman.
The focus of the video is now on the good times the franchise has had, with visuals of an ecstatic Morne Morkel after getting a wicket and their talisman and captain Gautam Gambhir playing his shots. The music in the background is dramatic and captivating. It all culminates with the boundary hit by Piyush Chawla that gave them the title in 2014 and the manic celebrations that followed.
The dramatisation in the video is sort of expected when one of the owners is the veritable 'King' of Bollywood, and when you know that he is quite involved in the franchise. But if you are willing to ignore the drama for a while, the video does narrate a story. It is what the story of KKR has really been in the Indian Premier League (IPL).
They started with truckloads of promise, with a number of big ticket signings. Chris Gayle, Ricky Ponting, Shoaib Akhtar, Brad Hodge, Brendon McCullum, Ajantha Mendis, Umar Gul would have given the impression that the team was a world-beater. A surreal 158 by McCullum in the very first match in IPL history strengthened this belief. But the reality was something quite different and as the tournament rolled on, it started to show. A team that was tipped to be riding roughshod over all opposition, by the end of the group stages, was all battered, bruised and nowhere in contention, winning only six of their matches.
The second year, in 2009, saw a change in captaincy with McCullum taking over from Sourav Ganguly, but that year proved to be disastrous with the team finishing last. It must be said, the then coach John Buchanan did his best to demotivate the team with some ridiculous proposals, like multiple captaincy, and with some pretty odd selections.
The third season had Ganguly being reinstated as captain, and Buchanan was removed as the coach, but the results did not look up. KKR bowed out, finishing just two places from the bottom.
The biggest mistake in KKR's selection in the first few seasons was that they went for pomp rather than substance, putting heart over mind. Beneath the glittering exterior adorned the big international stars, there was a soft underbelly of a pretty pedestrian Indian contingent. Players like Aakash Chopra and Sanjay Bangar were clearly not cut out for the rough and tumble of a mighty competitive T20 league. Ganguly and Ishant Sharma were probably the two biggest Indian names in the side, and while Ganguly did put up some memorable performances, age and agility were clearly not on his side and it did not take long to show. Ishant, on the other hand, had a pretty forgettable time in KKR.
When you can play only four overseas players, ignoring the Indian stock was a blunder on the part of KKR in the first three seasons. What was worse, for one reason or the other, KKR did not have the services of Ponting and Gayle to the extent that they wanted.
The year 2011 marked a tectonic shift in the KKR story. First and foremost, the franchise signed Gambhir as captain. He is a very effective limited-overs player and the hero of India's 2007 World T20 and 2011 World Cup wins, and had been successful with Delhi Daredevils. He came for a massive cost of over Rs 11 crore, but changed the team's mindset. The focus was now on Indian talent and players customised for their specific roles and positions, even if they were not big names. Thus, players like Ryan Ten Doeschate and Laksmipathy Balaji were signed. Yusuf Pathan, who had been sending bowlers running for cover with his extreme hitting, and wily old fox Shakib Al Hasan were significant buys for them.
Soon the results began to show. They reached the playoffs in 2011, and in 2012, won their first title. KKR added another crown in 2014 and reached the playoffs last year too. The new KKR under Gambhir is clearly more consistent and hungrier to win.
What are then their chances this year? The first thing that comes to mind when you look at the KKR squad is that it is quite a balanced one and has a settled look to it, with every department well-manned. There is depth in the side also. There is no denying that the loss of Russell just before the auctions in February was a huge blow. The franchise bought English all-rounder Chris Woakes in the auctions, and the onus will be on him to do the job that Russell used to for the side, and he would do well to find the right areas to bowl on the subcontinent wickets, because bowling length on these wickets, especially at the 'death' would be asking for trouble.
But apart from Woakes, KKR made some good strategic buys in the auctions too, the chief among them being Trent Boult. The New Zealander is one of the leading pacers in world cricket and one of the few to have troubled the Indians on their home turf when New Zealand came on tour last year. KKR really needed to shore up the pace bowling department having released Morne Morkel, who was battling injury woes, and there could not have been a better replacement than Boult, and with him sharing the new ball with Umesh Yadav, there is a lot of firepower that KKR can look forward to. The left-right combination between Boult and Umesh will add to the batsmen's headache and the Boult-Umesh pair could be the showstopper this season.
The Kolkata franchise will only hope Boult doesn't underachieve as compatriot Shane Bond did with them. The good news on Umesh is that he may play their first home match on 13 April, after having been advised a two-week rest buy the BCCI to recover from the taxing home season. Umesh may be seen as having been a bit too profligate for T20 cricket, but the Australia series has shown that his accuracy has increased considerably.
Another top buy for Kolkata in the auctions this year was Rishi Dhawan for Rs 55 lakh. That is a lot of quality for a very affordable price. He could be a good back up for Boult and Umesh, as could be Australian speedster Nathan Coulter-Nile, whom KKR bought for Rs 3.5 crore.
Coming to the spin attack, it is arguably the best in the entire league. Sunil Narine, Shakib Al Hasan, Piyush Chawla and the new star Kuldeep Yadav would make any opposition nervous. Kuldeep is in prime form, having bamboozled the Australians with his 'mysterious' Chinaman bowling in the just-concluded Test in Dharamsala, and looks good to play a far bigger role for KKR this year than he has so far, though the runs Chawla gets with the bat lower down the order may just give him the nod.
One also imagines that Shakib will have to play a more influential role than he has been for the team, both with bat and ball. It remains to be seen though how much of an assistance the spinners get on the Eden Gardens wicket which is not as slow and low as it used to be.
The batting is led by Gambhir and Robin Uthappa at the start of the order. Both have been out of favour with the Indian selectors for some time now, but can still strike a long ball. Additionally Uthappa keeping wickets lends an enormous balance to the side. Chris Lynn at No 3 or 4 is a huge advantage for KKR. The 26-year-old has been in scorching form in Australian domestic competitions, including the Big Bash League (BBL), and KKR bank heavily on him.
Manish Pandey, Suryakumar Yadav, Shakib and Yusuf Pathan make up a very capable middle order. Pathan may have been a much diluted avatar of the destroyer that he was with Rajasthan Royals, but still has to be in the side, at least till he totally stops contributing. That is because he possesses a 'wow' factor and when he is in the side, the opposition knows that no match is over till it is actually over, for there is someone in the KKR lineup who can change the complexion of a contest in just a couple of overs.
The combination of overseas players in the starting eleven that KKR choose would be interesting to note. Lynn and Boult are pretty certain to start, you would think. For the remaining two spots, it may be a toss up between Shakib, Woakes and Narine. Would the team go with a pacer-all rounder or a spinner-all rounder would determine who among Woakes and Shakib plays. If KKR go with both, Narine would have to sit out, but leaving a proven match-winner like Narine may not be wise.
All things considered, KKR's first eleven may look something like this: Gambhir, Uthappa, Lynn, Pandey, Suryakumar, Pathan, Shakib/Woakes, Kuldeep/Piyush, Umesh, Narine and Boult.
Gambhir's team, therefore, looks poised to make a charge for their third IPL crown this year. How KKR manages the unavailability of Russell will be crucial, and Boult can emerge as the game-changer for them this season, much the same way Narine was in 2012.
KKR has been all about emotion and raw passion, totally reflecting the character of the city that they represent and its people. Marrying that with clever strategising has paid them rich dividends and there is no reason why it can't continue to do so. Therefore, modifying the title of the promotional video we started with, let's just say, KKR are ready for IPL 2017 and all comers beware!