Back in December 2019, when Kolkata Knight Riders (KKR) broke the bank for Pat Cummins for an eye-catching Rs 15.5 crore, it obviously made headlines for the 2020 IPL auctions. An Australian bowling all-rounder going for a premium-plus amount wasn’t surprising; after all, an English batting all-rounder named Ben Stokes had fetched Rs 14.5 crore in 2017. These multi-faceted international stars are worth the money.
But thanks to all the headlines, another important buy for the Knight Riders went under the radar. Kolkata also picked up England’s white-ball skipper Eoin Morgan for Rs 5.5 crore. The money is immaterial here – the implication of this purchase mattered more. As a limited-overs’ specialist, he has played for KKR (2011-2013), Royal Challengers Bangalore, Sunrisers Hyderabad, Kings XI Punjab and now KKR again. He also plied his wares at Pakistan Super League, Big Bash League, Caribbean Premier League and T10 League in the UAE.
More pertinently Morgan led England to a milestone 2019 ODI World Cup win, just about six months prior to the auction. It was obvious that the moment he re-entered Kolkata’s fold, there were hushed discussions about the leadership at Knight Riders for this 2020 IPL season. A majority, those in the know-of-thing and otherwise, talked up the obvious – Dinesh Karthik to continue as KKR captain, and the franchise confirmed it as well.
There were a few though who knew this would be a ticking clock. Morgan’s white-ball exploits are well established. When he gets going, he is a power-hitter beyond par, even if he hasn’t quite settled down and nailed an IPL spot at some franchise. The English summer often interfered in that. Even so, whether or not there are doubts about his batting credentials in IPL, there are none whatsoever regarding his leadership.
An astute thinker, someone who can identify the pulse of his team and the overall squad, a leader who doesn’t back down from confrontation but also know how to play mind games, a white-ball connoisseur who changed English cricket’s fortunes – Morgan makes a definitive case for leadership at an IPL franchise, especially if you do not have a popular and powerful Indian cricketer at the helm of affairs.
Make no mistake Karthik is well-liked by everyone. If you work in the Indian cricketing circles, you will not meet anyone who will say a disparaging word about the Tamil Nadu wicketkeeper-batsman. Always eager to do his bit and ready to fight for his spot, he is the very marker all young cricketers should look up to. Even so, there is a flipside to all these qualities. Karthik is assertive when leading, but he is not a powerhouse. He fights for what is or should be his, but that’s not what a superstar is about, is it?
Could Morgan ever upstage Gautam Gambhir, who led KKR after Sourav Ganguly? Among current premier Indian cricketers, could he even replace KL Rahul as captain, let alone the likes of Virat Kohli, Rohit Sharma or MS Dhoni? Karthik could be upstaged because he has always fallen just short of that elite status – it is the harsh truth. It is not a personal or professional fault of his, it is just the way things are. And in this cruel world, the big fish eat the smaller fish, which themselves eat the smallest fish.
The underlying point is this captaincy changeover was inevitable since the day Morgan joined KKR. It should have happened before the season began, allowing him to work through a proper strategy with coach Brendon McCullum. Now, in the middle of the IPL 2020 season, to have a captaincy changeover makes for some uncomfortable questions.
Firstly, Kolkata weren’t really doing too bad, placed fourth. Despite the heavy eight-wicket loss to Mumbai Indians on Friday, they still retained fourth and are placed mid-point in the table, almost an equal chance of making the knockouts. So what was the need for this change? That’s where the second point comes in.
Kolkata’s last two wins against Chennai Super Kings and Kings XI Punjab weren’t outright convincing. They nearly lost both those games. Then came the crushing loss to Royal Challengers Bangalore – a pattern started emerging. Further, Karthik’s half-century against Punjab didn’t seem an uptick in his personal form – he has only two double-digit scores in eight innings in this IPL season. Sure, he gave up the captaincy himself but was there even a hint of suggestion from the management?
That possibility cannot be denied and it points to a difference in thinking of the franchise and the player concerned. To assume he is not thinking of an international comeback would be a fallacy. Karthik wants freedom to do his own thing – attack the bowling in a manner that reflects he is good enough for both Kolkata and an Indian spot. It has led to some dubious shot selection, resulting in 112 runs from those eight innings – only 54 from seven innings if you take out that half-century. Quite a few people questioned this lack of contribution, and responsibility, with Kevin Pietersen the most vociferous critic.
While Karthik is now free to work on his batting-keeping skills and push for a distant Indian T20I spot, Morgan coming into the leadership role probably brings some keen changes to the Knight Riders’ strategy. So far, they have had a fluid line-up – no settled opening pair, no definitive number four, a floating middle order, under-using Andre Russell again, and no idea what to do with Sunil Narine or Kuldeep Yadav. But Morgan has shown in his international captaincy stints that he likes pre-defined roles and will make sure the top-order, atleast, is solid.
A slight hint of it could be seen in the manner Knight Riders lined up against Mumbai. Rahul Tripathi restored to his deserved opening spot, partnering Shubman Gill, the fulcrum of this top-order, and firmer middle order with Nitish Rana-Karthik thereafter. It didn’t work just yet, of course, partly down to some horrendous shot selection on their part, and partly owing to Mumbai’s superior bowling attack. Jasprit Bumrah’s bouncer to Andre Russell, for example – a thing of pace bowling beauty, you can play that on loop!
It takes a little time to bring in the consistency that Kolkata are trying to incorporate into their playing eleven. The first couple weeks were about experimentation, and now it is time to settle things down. You can see this in the manner Kuldeep Yadav has been completely ignored – he doesn’t fit in the balance of the playing eleven, never mind, sitting out four consecutive matches. How many IPL teams can afford to bench a prime Indian bowler, that too an unorthodox wrist-spinner?
Mumbai Indians are the best examples of consistency in this IPL season, using only 13 players in eight matches thus far. Ishan Kishan stepped in for Saurabh Tiwary, and their batting went on a roll. Nathan Coulter-Nile stepped in for James Pattinson, and nothing changed with their bowling balance. They have a set formula, from top to bottom, with a pronounced Indian and overseas core that has been assembled over the last decade. And this is a team in its prime form, in the middle of their development cycle, the defending champions, and the team to beat in IPL 2020.
Like any franchise, KKR too have a development cycle of their own – they have brought in Indian youngsters and are building a core for the future.
At present though, they have to find a balance between bat-ball while achieving on-field consistency and, at the very least, enough points to make the IPL 2020 knockouts. Eoin Morgan has a job to do.
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