2019 was an aberration to the archetypal Kolkata Knight Riders as they missed out on qualifying to the play-off stages for the first time since 2015. Among the top IPL sides who often prefer to retain their core bunch of players, Kolkata had an eye-opening season last year where they realised that the old warhorses were misfiring.
Starting the campaign with four wins in five matches — a lot of them high-scoring run-chases — Kolkata's season derailed each time their big show and match-winner, Andre Russell faltered. On numerous occasions, the misfiring top-order was masked by the raw power and belligerence of Andre Russell and the composure of Dinesh Karthik.
But the holes were too large for these two to plug by themselves and when the ship sunk, there was little surprise. Perhaps, the Knight Riders realised it too as they went about releasing some trusted resources in Piyush Chawla and Robin Uthappa, both mainstays in the team for a long time. Despite racking up 405 runs in 13 games last season, Chris Lynn was deemed dispensable too.
Two things stood out glaringly in Kolkata's poor season: an over-reliance on too few players and a game plan well set in stone that they refused to wander away from it even things were getting out of hand. A prime example of KKR's rigidity was that they failed to recognise and bring about corrective measures when teams worked out Sunil Narine's harakiri when opening the batting.
They left the likes of Nitish Rana and Shubman Gill in the lower middle-order for too long and ultimately paid the price. There are lessons in plenty for them from last season, but even with the horde of releases, it is still too early to assume Kolkata have found a new plan. Can they turn things around in 2020 with a few smart purchases in the market later this month?
Transfers: In – Siddhesh Lad (INR 20 lakh from MI) Out – None
Players Released: Anrich Nortje, Carlos Brathwaite, Chris Lynn, Joe Denly, KC Cariappa, Matt Kelly, Nikhil Naik, Piyush Chawla, Prithvi Raj Yarra, Robin Uthappa, Shrikant Mundhe
Current Squad: Dinesh Karthik, Andre Russell, Sunil Narine, Kuldeep Yadav, Shubman Gill, Lockie Ferguson, Nitish Rana, Rinku Singh, Prasidh Krishna, Sandeep Warrier, Harry Gurney, Kamlesh Nagarkoti, Shivam Mavi, Siddhesh Lad
How they shape up: INR 35.65 crore available, 11 slots to fill (four overseas)
Of the players KKR chose to retain, only four players are absolute certainties in the starting XI - Dinesh Karthik, Andre Russell, Shubman Gill and Nitish Rana. Sunil Narine's waning effectiveness with the bat and poor rate of picking up wickets — he picked up 10 wickets in 12 matches last season — might overshadow his economy rate and prompt Kolkata to buy some spinners at the auction.
The squad has a very lop-sided look to it at the moment with as many as six pace bowlers retained. Only one of them — out of the four that played — went at an economy of less than eight runs per over last season. This makes some of the retentions all the more bizarre.
Robin Uthappa, Chris Lynn and Piyush Chawla were the major players released with Lynn the only one likely to be bought back at a lower price. From Carlos Brathwaite to Anrich Nortje, Joe Denly and Matt Kelly, four overseas players were released to make room for new picks.
Major holes to plug
With an account balance of more than INR 35 crores, one might easily assume that KKR have left themselves enough in the bank to splurge a bit at the auctions. But unfortunately, they are in for bad news as the squad appears completely misshapen as they head to the auction.
This would mean they will have major holes to fill on priority basis before they move to the fancy section and shop some decors which can add a splash of panache to the line-up. This will remain Kolkata's major challenge at the auction this year.
Even with so many fast bowlers in the side, they lack a solid leader and it cost them big last year. So pacers aren't off the shopping list yet, and they still have lots of vacant spot in other departments.
Assuming Shubman Gill and Nitish Rana get a promotion in the batting order, the middle-order needs some solid back up. While they can go for some value-for-money buys to fill those spots, the back-up to Chris Lynn and Andre Russell — who is an injury-risk will likely cost big.
Carlos Brathwaite was sought upon last season in an experiment that went south and they have let go of the West Indian. Replacing him would be among Kolkata's major to-do's on 19 December.
Other gaps to fill
All said and done, Kolkata is a franchise that likes stability. It is reflected in their intent and interest to retain a selected group of players over the past few years. Now that they have moved on, building a future is quintessential to achieving stability.
By placing immense faith in Shubman Gill, Nitish Rana and a couple of young tearaway Indian pacers — Kamlesh Nagarkoti and Shivam Mavi — Kolkata have shown that they are keen on not just shopping goodies for this Christmas, but also retaining them through the next few Decembers.
While they have the second-highest bank balance after Kings XI Punjab heading into the auction, the holes they need to plug are too large to believe that they can afford a 10 crore buy. This would mean bidding smartly — something they have managed to do over the years — at the auction. We could see them bank on a few under-19 and young domestic stars this time around to build a team for the future.
Who should be on the radar?
A pace spearhead — Dale Steyn
They have a whole team of quicks at their disposal, but if anything was evident from the repeated miseries of Prasidh Krishna and Harry Gurney, it was that they missed a senior head who can put an arm around their shoulders when things go out of hand.
Few come better than Dale Steyn in this regard. While his injury battles are well known, Steyn has retired from red-ball cricket and is focusing on bowling short, effective spells in T20s. In the ongoing Mzansi Super League, Steyn is the second-highest wicket-taker with 15 wickets in 8 matches at an average of 15.13.
He also has an economy of 7.09 to combine with that pretty good strike rate. Steyn has remained injury-free and bowled with good pace and venom to suggest that he is well and truly back. With franchises expected to have inhibitions about picking the pacer who has a rich injury history, Kolkata might even get him at a cheap price. On the quick Eden wicket, Steyn could prove to be a season-changing buy for KKR.
Other options: Kyle Abbott, Jason Behrendorff, Sheldon Cottrell
A replacement for Chris Lynn — Tom Banton
Striking big and striking consistently is an art and it's tough to win a T20 league at the moment without an effective opener who can take the game away from the opposition. Think Shane Watson. Think Rohit Sharma.
This is one area where Kolkata might have to splash a wee little bit to ensure they stay in the race. While Shubman Gill is a certainty at the top, they might want to use Narine sparingly and it calls for a like-for-like replacement for Lynn.
Few have impressed as much as the extraordinary Tom Banton in recent times. The Somerset and England opener has been in ravishing form with his wide array of strokes garnering big attention. The Big Bash League and T10 Leagues have taken note and an IPL gig is almost inevitable as it stands.
He might not come cheap either with quite a few franchises expected to show massive interest in him. That said, they aren't out of back-up options. Rilee Rossouw, who has been tonking it big in the Bangladesh Premier League on tricky wickets, is another guy who might be on KKR's radar.
An out-of-the-box pick could be Ireland's Paul Stirling. The 29-year old is used to playing on pitches with pace and bounce and has a formidable record in the shorter formats of the game. A strike rate of 140-plus with the bat and a few overs of off-spin can rarely go wrong in this format.
Other options: Rilee Rossouw, Paul Stirling
A back-up for Andre Russell — James Neesham
While Andre Russell remains the demi-god, Kolkata might have to get used to the fact that he needs a back-up because of potential injury concerns. Even if Russell does play the entire season, it might not be a bad idea to add reinforcements behind him in the batting line-up in the form of a couple of all-rounders.
Ideally, they would have liked a young domestic pace bowling all-rounder like Harshal Patel, but with Delhi Capitals possessing him and few other options being as interesting among local talents, KKR might have to fill up one overseas slot in this department.
James Neesham, who has had a rollercoaster ride in International cricket with the Kiwis, could be a cheap, yet considerably good buy. In 3 T20Is in 2019, Neesham has struck at a rate of 165.78 while averaging 30-plus with the bat. If that's too low a sample size, an average of 43.6 with the bat in ODIs while striking at 100-plus in 2019 should seal the deal. A decent pace bowling option too, Neesham should be a priority pick in the KKR line-up.
Other options: Colin de Grandhomme, Chris Morris
A spinner (preferably one who can bowl in the powerplays) — Sai Kishore
In Sunil Narine and Kuldeep Yadav, KKR have two solid spinners but they might want to add more bullets in this category. Piyush Chawla and KC Cariappa were released from the squad which means that the Knight Riders are short of back-ups.
If they are hesitant to spill money — and an overseas slot — for a spinner, they have a viable domestic player in Tamil Nadu's Ravi Sai Kishore. The left-arm spinner topped the wickets chart at the recently concluded Syed Mushtaq Ali Trophy with 20 wickets in 12 matches at an economy of 4.64.
Impressively, most of this came in the powerplay overs where Kolkata seem very short-staffed when it comes to spinners. Sai Kishore could plug that hole and give them with a containing, yet wicket-taking option.
Other options: Chris Green, Qais Ahmad, Fabien Allen, Manimaran Siddharth, Saurabh Kumar
A middle-order batsman - Rassie van der Dussen
Other options: Eoin Morgan, Baba Aparajith, Virat Singh, Alex Carey
Rassie van der Dussen was a late entry in the IPL auctions last time around and no franchises were interested in him. But things have taken a distinct u-turn in 2019 with the 30-year old becoming a mainstay in South Africa's limited-overs line-up.
A superb show in the Mzansi Super League (MSL) in 2018/19 was succeeded by some impressive performances for South Africa in coloured clothing. Even with his recent MSL performances being inconsistent, van der Dussen has showcased enough of his abilities for franchises to trust him.
At KKR, where he would have Dinesh Karthik and Andre Russell flanking him, van der Dussen could be an ideal batsman who can drop anchor and rotate strike. In times of crisis, the South African is also capable of stepping up and playing the firefighter as he showed during World Cup 2019.
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Malinga, who has played a staggering 122 IPL matches, has 170 wickets to his credit, the highest in the cash-rich league, with the best bowling figures of 5/13.
Since the IPL final is also expected to be played around the same dates, it could have complicated the quarantine schedule of the participating players.
=The player retention deadline ended on 20 January and the trading window closes on 4 February.