Over the last five seasons, the Kolkata Knight Riders (KKR) have transformed themselves from being the laughing stock of the Indian Premier League (IPL) into perennial contenders. Two titles over that time period makes them the most successful team in the league alongside Mumbai Indians, who have also won twice.
KKR's success has been built on a combination of strong leadership provided by Gautam Gambhir, and a core group of players further augmented by smart buys in the player auctions. Having a strong nucleus has allowed the team to build a winning culture.
The franchise failed to make the play-offs last season, missing out by a single point, and that precisely is the reason why KKR could be a threat this year. However, there are a couple of significant questions hanging over the team as we head into the 2016 season.
A major boost for the two-time champions will be the clean chit given by the ICC to star spinner Sunil Narine, letting him resume bowling with his remodelled action. Should his action come under scrutiny in the IPL again, as it did last year when he was reported by match officials and subsequently banned from bowling his offbreaks, it would deal a big blow to KKR’s chances of a third title in six years. Narine was their leading bowler with 21 wickets when they won the trophy in 2014. Last season, he played only eight games and took just seven wickets. KKR finished fifth.
The other potential banana peel is the psyche of Andre Russell, KKR’s best player in 2015, scoring 326 runs at an average of 36.22 and a strike-rate of 192.89 while also taking 14 wickets (most by a KKR bowler) and conceding less than eight runs an over. Russell, of course, was an integral part of the West Indies's thrilling World T20 triumph. Considering how many Australian players suffered a mental let-down in last year's IPL after winning the 2015 World Cup, Russell might find it difficult to stay as fired up for the IPL, especially given the length of the season.
KKR also have a new coach in Jacques Kallis, who takes over from Trevor Bayliss. As part of two-title winning KKR teams, you'd expect Kallis to have a good handle on the players and know how to keep them motivated and hungry. Kallis at the helm should also mean continuity in terms of tactics and strategy, so this change, at least, should be relatively seamless.
With the next big player auction scheduled for 2017 and teams only allowed to retain a maximum of four players, the 2016 IPL could well be the last go-around for this group of players. That could be as good a motivation as any to go out on top.
Russell and Narine aside, you can expect Manish Pandey,Yusuf Pathan and Robin Uthappa to shoulder the batting load. It was Pandey's splendid 94 that won KKR the tournament in 2014 and the 27-year-old is undoubtedly in the prime of his career, even having scored an ODI century for India, which should give him added confidence.
With Gambhir now 34, Uthappa will be key at the top of the order while Yusuf will continue to play the role of big-hitting finisher. Yusuf showed he was far from done in 2015, averaging 44.57 with a strike-rate of 135.06, and he remains a player who can change the game in the space of an over or two.
Bangladeshi all-rounder Shakib Al Hasan could be crucial for the balance of the side. He can bat in the top order if necessary and his left-arm spin is more than useful, especially on helpful pitches, as he proved in 2014, when he took 11 wickets with an economy rate of 6.68, and averaged 32.40 with the bat with a strike-rate of 149.34.
Getting the balance right will be essential. Kolkata have nine foreign players, which means the majority of them will be sitting out on any given match. The likes of West Indies all-rounder Jason Holder and South African Chris Lynn could well find themselves on the outside looking in, as could the seemingly age-less Brad Hogg, now 45, who took nine wickets in six matches at an economy rate of 6.85 last season.
KKR have also typically relied on their spinners to give them the edge over other teams, but in the 2016 auction, there was a notable shift in their buying strategy as they acquired six fast bowlers, including four all-rounders. Whether this also represents a change in their on-field strategy or a quest for greater balance remains to be seen, but either way, getting the bowling combination right will be a lot tougher.
Performance in 2015
It was an up-and-down season for KKR in 2015, who finished the season with a win-loss record of 7-6 with one match abandoned. They ended up missing the play-offs by one point but held their fate in their own hands with two matches to go. A win in either of them would have taken them over the line but they lost to Mumbai Indians by five runs and Rajasthan Royals by nine, both results sending those teams through at the expense of KKR.