For two back-to-back seasons, Kolkata Knight Riders (KKR) have fallen short on NRR to make it to the playoffs. The position on the table is a reflection of their team's performance in the last two seasons: better than the ordinary yet very average. Still not good enough to find a place in the top four.
But KKR look like a team in making. Their team combinations have changed almost every year since Dinesh Karthik took charge. He quit mid-season in 2020 as he wanted to focus on his batting alone, giving Eoin Morgan the complete charge of the team. While the team could not finish on a high in 2020, this season is a chance to do better as Morgan will have more games in his hand as a leader.
— KolkataKnightRiders (@KKRiders) April 5, 2021
At the 2021 auction, KKR were very smart with their buys. Not going after the big names but looking to get those who can fill the gaps in their squad.
Bangladesh all-rounder Shakib Al Hasan returns to the tournament after missing the 2020 edition due to a ban. A genuine spin-bowling all-rounder, Shakib provides the much-needed balance to the team. He is a skillful T20 bowler who has the ability to bowl many a dots in the middle part of the innings, putting more pressure on the batting team. His economy of under 8 is a testament to the same. But it will be interesting to see how he finds a place in the XI knowing a foreign player is their full-time captain.
— KolkataKnightRiders (@KKRiders) April 4, 2021
With Morgan, Pat Cummins and Andre Russell guaranteed starters, it will be a toss up between Sunil Narine and Shakib Al Hasan for the fourth foreigners' slot. Given Narine's low returns in the past two editions, expect Shakib to play the first few games. The last season especially turned out to be a flop for the KKR veteran, where he grabbed just five wickets and scored 121 runs in ten games.
Spin, KKR's biggest strength, but form a concern
Speaking of spin alone, KKR boast of a strong contingent. There is of course Shakib and Narine, and then there is Harbhajan Singh, who was bought at 2021 auctions at his base price of Rs 2 crore. Harbhajan has a strong CV but he did not find his name regularly in the XI of Chennai Super Kings for whom he had played two seasons - 2018 and 2019.
He is coming to the IPL with absolutely no cricket behind him. In fact, the last time he took the field was on 12 May, 2019. He opted out of the 2020 edition due to personal reasons and is looking forward to his stint with KKR to start afresh. What he brings is massive experience of having played the tournament for a champion side like Mumbai Indians for a long time. He will get stiff competition for places from the likes of Kuldeep Yadav and Varun Chakravarthy. While Varun is expected to start in the XI from Game no 1, Kuldeep's consistent dip in form raises questions on his selection.
These five specialist T20 spinners, however, give KKR an edge over others, considering Indian most of the surfaces are expected to play slow. If the spinners step up, KKR will more often than not end up with the right result.
Rana-Gill opening pair
Last season, KKR struggled to find the right set of opening batsmen. At the start of the tournament, Sunil Narine and Shubman Gill started off as openers but Narine's lack of runs meant Rahul Tripathi was given chance and after a couple of good shows, even he faded out. Tom Banton was tried for one game but even that move did not reap any dividends for KKR. KKR were forced to try Nitish Rana at the top and the move worked for the team as he was struggling at No 3 but once pushed at the top, he smashed two scores in the 80s.
KKR would be looking to continue with the left-right combination of Rana and Gill at the top, with Tripathi at 3, followed by Morgan, Karthik, Shakib, and Russell.
Pressure on Russell to deliver
It was not only Narine who had a bad season with both bat and ball in 2020 edition. Another match-winner from the Caribbean, Andre Russell, who has been a key player for Knight Riders in the past editions did not live up to the expectations and found himself on the sidelines with a knee injury forcing him to sit out of four games.
Russell is a proven match-winner, but he is at the peak of his powers only when he is completely fit. In the last couple of years, his career has seen many starts and stops as he has battled injuries and faced a year ban as well for violation of doping code.
— KolkataKnightRiders (@KKRiders) April 6, 2021
He is coming to this edition of the IPL having played no game this year. He last appeared in a T20 tournament in November-December in 2020 for Colombo Kings in Lanka Premier League where he scored 169 runs in seven innings, hitting a lone fifty while he picked up eight wickets.
If Morgan has a fully-fit Russell for 14 straight games, a Russell who bowls his full quota of overs, KKR would be a happy unit at the end of the day. He has not had any game time and that should make him even more hungry for wickets and runs.
If Russell is able to bowl his quota of overs, we might see KKR opt for an additional spinner. If not, they will have to play either Shivam Mavi or Kamesh Nagarkoti alongside Pat Cummins and Prasidh Krishna, who has been in good form for Karanataka in the Vijay Hazare Trophy (14 wickets in 7 games) and showing nerves of steel during the England series where he also made his international debut.
KKR play their first game on 11 April at Chennai against Sunrisers Hyderabad. They will play three games in Chennai, two in Mumbai and four each in Ahmedabad and Bengaluru.
Full Squad: Shubman Gill, Nitish Rana, Tim Seifert (wk), Rahul Tripathi, Gurkeerat Singh Mann, Dinesh Karthik (wk), Eoin Morgan (c), Andre Russell, Sunil Narine, Varun CV, Kuldeep Yadav, Pat Cummins, Lockie Ferguson, Kamlesh Nagarkoti, Shivam Mavi, Sandeep Warrier, Prasidh Krishna, Shakib Al Hasan, Sheldon Jackson, Vaibhav Arora, Karun Nair, Harbhajan Singh, Ben Cutting, Venkatesh Iyer, Pawan Negi
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Barring the trio of Kuldeep Yadav, Lockie Ferguson and Pat Cummins, who are already quarantining at the team hotel in Chennai, the entire team and management took an afternoon chartered flight.
Despite the presence of several heavyweights, it was the domestic duo of Nitish Rana and Rahul Tripathi who led KKR to 187/5, sharing a 93-run second-wicket partnership in just 8.2 overs.
Chennai Super Kings survived a massive scare on Wednesday night and MS Dhoni's men would have learnt a lot of lessons. Kolkata, meanwhile, can look forward in hope that their middle order might have recovered some batting form, just in time to save their 2021 IPL season.