Imperfect, erratic yet effective — these three words perfectly sum up Kolkata Knight Riders’ (KKR) journey to the playoff stage of the 11th edition of the Indian Premier League (IPL). Right from the start of the tournament, KKR’s ship had to battle the bumpy waves in the rough sea of intense competition. At times, it even threatened to crumble. But in the end, thanks to their persistence, the ‘Purple Brigade’ has now managed to reach the harbour.
With a new-look team and under the leadership of an inspirational skipper, finishing the league stage as the third ranked side is a wonderful achievement by the Kolkata-based outfit. Remember, because of its relatively inexperienced core group and question mark surrounding the fitness of key players like Andre Russell and Chris Lynn, as well as the doubts over the remodeled bowling action of Sunil Narine; not many had backed KKR to reach the final four stages. But they ended up winning eight out of their 14 league games.
Over the years, we have seen how KKR think-tank likes to trim the squad size. There has been no exception this season as well. But what has worked remarkably well in their favour is having a similar sort of mentality of captain Dinesh Karthik, who likes to work with a small bunch of players. Right at the beginning of the tournament, he picked his core group of 15-16 cricketers and invested in them. It has allowed the squad to settle in and get into their grooves. Irrespective of initial failures, the captain has backed these particular players, given them confidence and the strategy has successfully helped the likes of Shubman Gill (145 runs in nine innings), Nitish Rana (279 runs in 13 innings as well as four wickets), Prasidh Krishna (nine wickets in five games) and Shivam Mavi (four wickets in eight games).
In fact, these youngsters are the backbone of this team. This season, unlike any other side, KKR have been more dependent on their uncapped players and they have justified this trust by coming up with significant contributions, even match winning performances at times. A classic testament to that was the innings Gill played (unbeaten 57) against Chennai Super Kings during a run-chase at Eden Gardens.
Now, talking about the experienced pros, Narine, with his all-round effort (16 wickets and 327 runs in 14 games) has been the standout performer. Even with his new action, the West Indian has been quite effective with the ball. He has taken wickets and also managed to keep the opposition scoring rate in check. Along with his bowling, Narine’s clean hitting at the top order has proven to be a crucial aspect of KKR’s campaign. His heroics with the bat in the Powerplay has inevitably provided his team a solid platform to build the innings.
Along with Narine, the other star performer of KKR this season has been the skipper himself. With 438 runs in 14 innings, Karthik has kept the middle-order intact throughout the league stage. He's the unsung hero when it comes to finishing matches. On paper, Russell may be the designated finisher for KKR, but it is Karthik who has done the job successfully with a strike-rate of 149.48. He has been also flawless with his wicket-keeping and as a captain, after some initial hiccups, the Chennai boy has shaped up decently. Henceforth, it won’t be improper to say that Karthik has led KKR from the front in his first IPL season as skipper.
Coming back from a shoulder injury, Lynn hasn’t been at his destructive best with bat. Still, in his new role as sheet anchor, he scored 425 runs in 14 innings, which included quite a few match winning knocks.
Others like Russell and Robin Uthappa, who were not at their usual best this season, but at times, there have been glimpses of their true potentials. If these two can tighten their games in the playoffs, Kolkata may emerge as a strong title contender.
Interestingly, prior to their three back-to-back wins in the final stage of the league games, KKR never had any sort of momentum. They had patchy performances with the bat, but it's their bowling department that had consistently let the team down.
The two-time champion KKR have always been renowned to be a good bowling side, but this year, for the major part of the league stage, most of their bowlers, especially the pacers struggled. They leaked runs and, on most occasions, the captain had to be extra dependent on his spin trio of Narine, Kuldeep Yadav and Piyush Chawla.
However, following two defeats against Mumbai, the Knight Riders have shown drastic improvement much to the delight of their admirers. It seems they have picked themselves up when it mattered the most. Going into the playoffs, this newly gained energy will be the biggest advantage of KKR. Though, not taking the early wickets inside the Powerplay still remain a big cause for concern. This is one area of improvement which team management needs to look at ahead of the league's final week.
Overall, KKR are a balanced unit and will play the playoff fixture against Rajasthan at their den, Eden Gardens. Hence, if they can plug some of the existing loopholes, Karthik’s boys can certainly be a team to watch out for.