Last July Kolkata Knight Riders (KKR) pushed the bar in Indian cricket a bit further by opening an academy to provide training and coaching to some of their players in the offseason. Abhishek Nayar, someone who understands human psychology and connects with the insecurities of fringe cricketers, was put in charge. This is the first instance where a franchise has taken partial control over the calendar of Indian cricketers. The players will now be better prepared to meet the demands of the high-voltage Indian Premier League (IPL) and the results will be visible over a period.
This could set a new trend and change the dynamics of player management. There could come a time where talent is spotted and groomed by the franchise and then loaned to represent the state in the domestic circuit.
That’s in the future, but for now, KKR would hope that the work they have done on the players in the academy reaps rewards in the 2019 edition of the competition.
Kolkata’s rise under Gautam Gambhir’s leadership after a few tough years at the start is well documented, but the need for fresh ideas was felt ahead of the last edition and that led to a major revamp. Gambhir was no more a part of the plan, and Dinesh Karthik became the new captain. Even if Sunil Narine, Chris Lynn, Andre Russell, Robin Uthappa, Piyush Chawla and Kuldeep Yadav were there, the departures of Shakib Al Hasan, Yusuf Pathan and Manish Pandey made the core look different.
Having never led an IPL team in the past despite being one of the senior most players in the circuit, Karthik’s credentials were up for a test and he passed with flying colours. His people-management skills and the ability to walk the talk by finishing among the competition’s top ten batsmen put the focus on him. He regularly stressed on the need to build a team for the future without taking his eyes off the franchise's immediate goal to make it to the playoffs. It’s a thin line that Karthik balanced with a lot of sensibilities.
Youngsters like Nitish Rana, Shubman Gill, who has since then played for India, Prasidh Krishna and Shivam Mavi felt empowered and flourished even as the seniors absorbed the pressure. Apart from Karthik, Lynn was the other KKR batsman to score above 490 runs. Narine, Uthappa, Russell and Rana provided support. Narine and Kuldeep were among the top wicket-takers and got good assistance from Russell.
What was however missing was consistency. None of the top-order batters were able to convert starts into big scores, which put the team in trouble. They eventually won the last three league games to make it to the playoffs as the fourth team, but with slightly better execution of their plans, they could have easily finished among the top two teams on the points table and directly played the Qualifier.
The team management, with Jacques Kallis as head coach, would want the players to take that extra responsibility to make 2019 even more memorable. The franchise spent Rs 9.15 crore out of their purse of Rs 15.2 crore in the recent auctions. Majority of their spend was to acquire the services of Carlos Brathwaite for Rs 5 crore.
Kolkata’s fierce bidding war against Kings XI Punjab for Brathwaite is understandable considering his all-round abilities. He has not been in great form in recent past, but Eden Gardens is where he made a name for himself after hitting four sixes off Ben Stokes in the last over of the 2016 World T20 final to give Windies the title.
Having parted ways with Mitchell Starc and Kamlesh Nagarkoti unlikely to be available because of injury, KKR also bought Lockie Ferguson and Harry Gurney to strengthen the pace bowling department. That the Windies and New Zealand players will be available for the entire duration of the IPL unlike some of the other countries because of pre World Cup preparations makes the purchase of Brathwaite and Ferguson crucial. Similarly, Gurney, who helped Melbourne Renegades win the last Big Bash League, is a shrewd operator with the old ball, an area that Kolkata needed to address. It, however, remains to be seen how quickly Ferguson and Gurney adapt to the Indian conditions.
If they strike form early then Kolkata have enough nous in the spin bowling and batting department to challenge any team.
Russell will once again be the fulcrum of the side. His ability to change games in a short span makes him a hot property. If Lynn starts well at the top and Russell finishes strong then KKR can put up or chase any total. Uthappa and Karthik along with Gill will be expected to play around the duo. Apart from team success, Karthik would be keen to make a statement to the national selectors before the team for the World Cup is announced. Till not long ago he was a part of India’s One-Day International plans but then was suddenly left out of the squad.
Also, keep an eye out for Rinku Singh. He did not make much of an impression last year but has since then grown in stature. He made a stunning century for Uttar Pradesh in the Ranji Trophy quarter-final and was a key figure in their entry to the Super League stage of the Syed Mushtaq Ali inter-state T20 tournament. The biggest development in him has been his shot selection.
Overall, Kolkata’s variety and depth in the squad along with the strong home support promises an attractive brand of cricket from the franchise.
Squad: Dinesh Karthik, Robin Uthappa, Chris Lynn, Andre Russell, Sunil Narine, Shubman Gill, Piyush Chawla, Kuldeep Yadav, Prasidh Krishna, Nitish Rana, Rinku Singh, Carlos Brathwaite, Lockie Ferguson, Joe Denly, Harry Gurney, Nikhil Naik, Shrikant Mundhe, Prithvi Raj Yarra, Sandeep Warrier, KC Cariappa.
Support staff: Jacques Kallis (head coach), Simon Katich (assistant coach), Abhishek Nayar (mentor), Omkar Salvi (bowling coach), Carl Crowe (spin bowling coach), Andrew Leipus (physiotherapist), Adrian le Roux (strength and conditioning coach), AR Srikkanth (performance analyst), Vidhya Sagar (assistant strength and conditioning coach), Kamlesh Jain (assistant physiotherapist), Derek Sedgman (soft tissue expert and masseur), Wayne Bentley (team manager).