Kolkata Knight Riders – A team of two tales
Shirshendu Roy • Last updated on Fri, 31 Mar, 2017, 09:33 PM
KKR had a poor beginning in the competition, marred by disappointment on the field and controversies off it, before finding its mojo to win two titles. © BCCI
If you hark back at Kolkata Knight Riders’ sojourn thus far, it could be aptly justified by its theme song – ‘Too Hot, Too Cool’, with perhaps a slight deviation, ‘Too Hot, Too Cold’. Even before the Knight Riders took the field, it had its heart and mind at the right place – heart at the Eden Gardens, India’s most revered sporting Colosseum and mind with the biggest movie icon, Shah Rukh Khan, known for driving any brand to its hilt. And above all, Kolkata’s son Sourav Ganguly was right at the centre of it all, as the face of the franchise.
It was only fitting for a tournament that brought India’s two eternal love interests – cricket and Bollywood – together, the opening had to be blockbuster. Brendon McCullum’s igniting 158 was just the spark the team and the tournament needed to spread like wildfire. But while Knight Riders arrived like a hot property, they blew cold subsequently, finishing sixth in the opening season. And as IPL headed into an unknown territory the next season, traversing boundaries to reach South Africa, John Buchanan’s multiple-captain theory in the same edition led them into not just uncertainty, but oblivion too. The constant chopping and changing at the top of the order, the exit of Pakistan players after the first edition and some misfiring guns, only compounded the complexities for them. The season after, Sourav Ganguly was back as the captain again, but neither did he inspire himself nor the team, leading to yet another heart-crushing season.
Unlike a storm that usually follows a lull, the Knight Riders were dented by a storm of changes, following which there was an eerie quiet. In an unfavourable move, the Knight Riders decided to look beyond Ganguly in 2011, and amid mass protests of ‘No Dada, No KKR’ and coming to terms with the change of heart, the team scaled their highest climb – a finish in the top-four, thus turning a new chapter in the Knight Riders’ journey.
The Knight Riders pushed the envelope a little farther the next season, clinching their maiden IPL title by downing defending champions Chennai Super Kings. That, in a way, ended Super Kings’ juggernaut and invincibility, making other teams believe that beating the MS Dhoni-led side after their 2010 and 2011 campaign was possible. Coincidentally, CSK haven’t won the IPL ever since. The victory helped Kolkata recognise its kernel and while they won the IPL again in 2014, their biggest reward has been their main group around which they have built their own legacy.
The Knight Riders draw all its energy from their core, built and retained over years. In Gautam Gambhir and Robin Uthappa, they find their openers, not the most flamboyant pair but with a method to bide time and set the platform for the free-flowing Manish Pandeys and Shakib Al Hasans to take over. If they got stuck somewhere, the brash bats of Yusuf Pathan and raw power of Andre Russel came through. As many times they wanted their bowlers to defend targets, Sunil Narine put his hand up, but all for his remorseless demeanour, he dismissed the popular thought of spinners being the second line of attack wrong. The Morne Morkels and Umesh Yadavs chose their stages to shine too, while a Shakib arrested the momentum of their opposition with his canny skills and unrelenting control. Overall, KKR, much like the city it hails from, always goes for its staple diet, predictable yet bankable.
This season though, much of its core is lurking for form – more at the top of both batting and bowling attacks – than ever. Their linkman Russel is not a part of this edition, in whom they will miss their biggest striker, their go-to-man for breakthroughs and an outrageously brilliant fielder. Neither do they have the day-in-day-out consistency of Morne Morkel.
While their latest purchase in the form of Trent Boult would still make up for the Morkel’s absence, it would be interesting to see how Chris Woakes fills in the void left by Russell. Woakes clearly doesn’t have the forearms and wielding willow of the West Indian and the IPL newbie will have to quickly come to terms with the fact that a perfect English bowling length is a bad Indian length. Kuldeep Yadav just had a dreamy Test debut against Australia with four wickets and the management would be licking their lips at the prospect of unleashing a confident like-never-before bowler.
The Knight Riders have rode their luck well all these years. They have largely been an injury-free side and the only time they missed one of their core players was when Manish Pandey was out with chicken pox for a few games in the 2016 edition. While they would want the injury woes to stay away this time as well, they would do well to get the best out of their cover players.
The team that could reap most rewards from India’s successful Test season are the Knight Riders. While Yadav’s reputation has only grown by leaps and bounds, the think tank would be wary to throw him on the highway right away. Umesh has missed only one of the 13 Tests at home, and that body could well be giving away creaking noises when he even takes a turn on his bed.
What the schedule holds
Much like their journey and mantra thus far, their schedule seems to be following the same route too. Their campaign begins on a tough note, facing off against last year’s table-toppers Gujarat Lions (2 losses) and then Mumbai Indians in away games, before they return home ahead of a uniformly distributed platter of home and away games. Kolkata’s group stage games end with MI again, a team they have just not been able to fare well against (13 losses, 5 wins) and in front of the Rohit Sharma-led side, who himself turns into Midas when at Eden. Kolkata will try not to leave their qualification fortunes hinge on the final game.
The talk of the town is a fresh pitch at the Eden Gardens, which promises to be pacier and bouncier than its slow, low past. The buzz was also sensed by the kind of purchases that the franchise went for in the February auction, not just merely filling their requisite slots but also looking majorly at quicker pacemen, like a Nathan Coulter-Nile. It’s of trivial knowledge to even the unknowledgeables that KKR’s heart beats with its spinners. No team has relied on and used its spinners better, even with its open secret policy of using Narine in three spells – at the top, in the middle overs and then at the backend. How, where and which spinners they fit in, keeping in mind the good form of Piyush Chawla and Kuldeep Yadav, and otherwise of Narine, makes for another interesting case study. That said, Shakib will continue to be a major constant and one of the first starters in their eleven.
KKR will ask themselves a few tough questions this season, especially in their spin department, like class or form? When would the X-factors like Chris Lynn and Rovman Powell come in? And above everything else, do KKR, whose history can be bisected into two halves, not just begin like a blockbuster, but end like one too? An adamant Gambhir and Co. will already be preparing for the answer.
Ideal Starting XI: Gautam Gambhir (c), Robin Uthappa, Manish Pandey, Yusuf Pathan, Suryakumar Yadav, Shakib Al Hasan, Chris Woakes, Sunil Narine, Piyush Chawla/Kuldeep Yadav, Trent Boult, Umesh Yadav