Those emerging from the Indian Premier League (IPL) auctions in January had one question: who's going to be the captain of the Kolkata Knight Riders (KKR) for the upcoming season? You would have looked at the team list and there wasn't a name that stood out as an obvious choice. Could it be old hand Robin Uthappa, who was retained through the Right To Match route for Rs 6.4 crore. Choosing him would have been rewarding him for his stellar performances for the franchise over the years. Could it be Dinesh Karthik, who was bought for a sum of Rs 7.4 crore? He has captaincy experience with Tamil Nadu and was an option. Could it be somebody like Chris Lynn, the hard-hitting Australian batsman, who is a nightmare for bowlers, and whom KKR went flat out for, eventually buying him for a massive Rs 9.6 crore? Could it indeed be the fiery Australian paceman Mitchell Johnson?
The problem with Lynn was that given his history of injuries, there could well be a scenario where he would have to miss a few matches. In fact, he missed Australia's One-Day Internationals (ODI) series against England in early January with a calf injury and then hurt his shoulder during the final of the Trans Tasman T20 tri-series in late February. One would recall, he had to miss a number of matches in the IPL last year after falling on his shoulder while fielding against the Mumbai Indians.
The issue with Johnson is that he may not feature in the starting line-up every time, given the four overseas players rule, and the importance being on finding the best fit for every match. With Sunil Narine, Andre Russell, Lynn and Mitchell Starc almost being certainties in the first XI, Johnson would always be fighting for his place.
Could it be R Vinay Kumar, who had led Karnataka in the recently-concluded Ranji Trophy? However, the captain of a franchise like KKR had to be a bit more high-profile, one felt.
There were no clear answers. There was no one in the 19-member squad with a rich body of work in terms of captaincy, like Sourav Ganguly in the initial few years, and then Gautam Gambhir from 2011-2017. With Gambhir not being retained, who could now step into the shoes of the feisty southpaw who had led the heavyweight franchise with passion, fire and elan, reversing the trend of despondency of the first three years, and taking them to two titles? It was a massive void to fill and it looked like KKR suddenly had a team, but no leader.
But the Knight Riders think tank knew what they were doing. A keen analysis of how they approached the auction would reveal a very clever strategy. They had clearly identified certain roles, certain areas of expertise and methodically gone ahead matching players to those roles.
They needed spinners who would run rings around the batsmen and in Narine, Kuldeep Yadav and Piyush Chawla, they have three of the most crafty spinners in the league. They needed top-quality batsmen. They bought Lynn, Karthik, Uthappa, Nitish Rana, who was a big hit for the Mumbai Indians last year, and Under-19 World Cup hero Shubman Gill. They wanted top-notch pacers, with their home ground, the Eden Gardens, having turned favourable to the faster men. And with Starc, Johnson, Javon Searles (a surprise pick bought at the eleventh hour), Vinay Kumar and the Under-19 sensations Kamlesh Nagarkoti and Shivam Mavi in the team, KKR's pace battery looks really fearsome. And then as far as the all-rounders are concerned, they have the services of the inimitable Russell and South Africa's Cameron Delport.
The KKR management was confident that once the jigsaw puzzle of putting the right players in the right roles is done, a leader can be identified. It was a far better strategy than picking a renowned captain, who would do precious little apart from captaining the team. KKR had learnt from their frustrating experiences earlier and were wiser this time around.
"It takes me back to 2011 as well. In many ways this auction was similar to that because even then we didn't know who our captain was going to be and we were fortunate to pick Gautam (Gambhir) and he became the captain and took us through a fantastic phase. There was a same approach here in many ways. When we went into the auction, just because of the unpredictability of the auction itself, we were not sure. The idea was to assemble the best possible team we could, and we felt that we have a very strong support staff and were quite confident that among the picks we will be able to get the type of people we wanted with the right type of attitude, skill sets and leadership qualities. That's how we went in," KKR MD and CEO Venky Mysore said during an interaction with the media at the Star Sports studios in Mumbai earlier this week, on the occasion of naming the new captain of the franchise.
With KKR being the most flamboyant team in the IPL, the announcement of the captain was made with some fanfare as well, with Dinesh Karthik being chosen as Gambhir's successor. Uthappa was named as Karthik's deputy.
"We were very fortunate that DK (Karthik) became part of the KKR franchise. We were also very fortunate that Robin (Uthappa) continued be a part of the franchise and there are certain other individuals in the team who have all contributed in very informal ways, whom I would put in that basket of informal leaders. So I think we have a great set up in that sense. I am glad it has all worked out the way it has," noted Mysore.
"When they picked a team they didn't pick a captain and then pick the team. They picked the team and hoped they would find the right captain in their midst and the good thing was that they had a few options to choose from... players who had been with them for long and they have had a couple of international stars and they had me who has been around for sometime but never been a part of the squad," said Karthik.
"If I know them well, they have a lot of tradition in place, a lot of culture in place. The most important thing for them was to check if I would fit their culture and mindset or would I be rebelling against what they have been thinking for so long. So they had their options, they weighed the pros and cons and then they probably decided, look this guy is playing international cricket, he is at the stage of his career where he will give a lot as a player and as a leader and that made them tilt towards me, and I was looking forward to this opportunity. As soon as the team was picked, I knew deep down that I had an opportunity to lead the side. So I was preparing for it mentally and waiting for an opportunity, and when they provided it to me, I was more than happy to take it," the Tamil Nadu wicketkeeper-batsman explained.
Karthik noted that he felt "really honoured" to have been handed over the reins of KKR, which he described as a "big franchise and a consistent franchise for 10 years now". "At this stage of my career I was really looking at a leadership role and I am really happy this came along the way," Karthik revealed.
"I will give it my best. KKR have a legacy of its own. I will be honoured if I can continue that legacy in the right direction. I don't want to put brakes on it and change the way things are done here. I think it is one of the most professional and well-managed franchises; I shouldn't be tinkering with anything. If at all anything, I should be focusing on what's the best that I can do to get the best out of the team that has been presented to me," he added.
What then are the things that he immediately wants to focus on, we asked him.
"I think the first would be to connect all the boys together. The most important thing would be to get the whole group together and get the bonding going straightaway because it's a tournament played over 50 days, and over a period of time at some points, you will need all of them to stand together as a family, to go into games and face difficult situations. That's the first step. It is always difficult in an IPL sort of environment because there is not much time. Leading up to the tournament there is hardly any time. You prepare skill-wise and get into the tournament. So it is always a challenge but we are trying to address that," Karthik said.
However, KKR fans accustomed with the abrasive, aggressive and indeed extremely effective style of Gambhir, may find Karthik a bit too sedate for their liking.
"In terms of being an aggressive captain I am somebody who is not aggressive outwardly by nature, but that doesn't mean I am not aggressive inside. In fact, I don't even talk to the opponent in the lead-up to the game. These are some of the qualities I have. When the situation arises, I would like to be there and do the best that I can do to counter that situation. I look eye to eye and do the small things that matter. In terms of body language I might not be out there in the face, but I know deep down that I am thoroughly aggressive the way I play cricket. I would want to take that forward and not change as a person. But if I have players in my side who are willing to go out there and show things outwardly, I am okay with it, and at the same time control them in such a manner that they don't get fined or stuff like that. So it's all about managing players and at the same time leading from the front as well," Karthik assured.
Another standout feature of KKR's strategy in this auction was the focus on youth, with three members from India's victorious Under-19 World Cup squad taken in.
"Part of it was a plan going in, but in auctions you can never have set plans of finding an appropriate way of having experience and youth. Having said that, it has nothing to do with age, it has everything to do with skills and it so happened that three of the boys that we picked up were from the victorious Under-19 World Cup team — Shubman Gill, Shivam Mavi and Kamlesh Nagarkoti. What they have done is tremendous and people who have been around them — Rahul Dravid and the whole team — were effusive in praising them for the skills that they brought. Each of them is different in a way. So it was great to see this and we were fortunate to bring them on, but it had more to do with skills and talent than necessarily saying we have to go after youth," revealed Mysore.
But a frank review of the KKR squad would tell you that it is just a bit thin in terms of batting resources, and that the team last year was a lot more balanced. They would surely miss the expertise of Manish Pandey and Nathan Coulter-Nile and it was surprising that they let them go. Also the injuries to Russell and Lynn would be giving them sleepless nights. But where they showed a lot of character was in their auction strategy and would be hoping Karthik is able to rally his young team and uphold the high standards the Purple Brigade have set in recent years.