IPL 2021: Can Kolkata Knight Riders find the right team balance to end title drought
- KKR go into this tournament on the back of a successful IPL auction. They secured the services of some very prominent names like Shakib Al Hasan, Karun Nair, Harbhajan Singh, Ben Cutting, and Pawan Negi. They also bought some promising uncapped talent in Sheldon Jackson, Vaibhav Arora, and Venkatesh Iyer.
Since the beginning of the 2019 edition of the Indian Premier League (IPL), the Kolkata Knight Riders (KKR) have had an opportunity to enter an exclusive club- franchisees with three or more IPL titles. A club that currently holds only the Mumbai Indian (MI) and the Chennai Super Kings (CSK).
Unfortunately, the two-time champions (2012 and 2014) have failed to even make the playoffs in the last two years, let alone winning the title. They finished fifth in the points table each year; level on points with the fourth-placed team but missed out courtesy a poorer run-rate. It wouldn’t be unfair to call them unlucky but it would be unfair to blame their inability to make the cut solely on fortune, for they have botched decision-making to blame.
The Kolkata-based franchise saw a change in captaincy midway through the season when Dinesh Karthik handed the over the reins to England’s white-ball captain Eoin Morgan. Moreover, the team had an unsettled top order that didn’t help the cause either. The opening pairing and the middle-order witnessed multiple shuffling in the league stage, leading to massive inconsistency.
However, not all was wrong. The most-expensive overseas player at the time Pat Cummins, the leader of the bowling department, produced some impressive spells. Kiwi Lockie Ferguson made the most of every opportunity he got and proved to be a wicket-taking bowler for his side.
They also saw the rise of spinner Varun Chakravarthy, who ended up punching a ticket to Australia; only to be ruled out later due to shoulder injury. Shubman Gill batted well throughout--a constant at the top-- and the likes of Nitish Rana and Rahul Tripathi chipped in with valuable contributions on various occasions.
KKR go into this tournament on the back of a successful IPL auction. They secured the services of some very prominent names like Shakib Al Hasan, Karun Nair, Harbhajan Singh, Ben Cutting, and Pawan Negi. They also bought some promising uncapped talent in Sheldon Jackson, Vaibhav Arora, and Venkatesh Iyer.
Overall, the squad looks well-balanced and well-equipped to beat any side in the competition and go for the third title that has eluded them since 2014. Their quality quotient in the spin department is high and the firepower is plenty. Couple that with their potent bowling attack and some handy additions to this year’s squad, they could become the side to beat.
Now, the big question is: How do KKR shape up for the 14th edition of the cash-rich league?
Let’s analyze it through the lenses of a SWOT analysis?
Power hitters: KKR is a team blessed with big hitters from the top to the lower middle order. From West Indies’ Andre Russell and Sunil Narine and New Zealand’s Tim Seifert to Australia’s Ben Cutting and England’s Eoin Morgan, the side boasts of multiple match-winners who are capable of bailing the team out of trouble and up the ante as and when required. They also have Indian power hitters in Rahul Tripathi, Nitish Rana, and Dinesh Karthik.
Captain fantastic: Eoin Morgan is arguably one of the best white-ball captains currently in world cricket and England’s world ranking of 1 in T20Is bears testament. Under Morgan, the side also bagged their maiden 50-over World Cup in 2019. Moreover, Morgan became only the fourth player--first Englishman-- to play 100 T20Is when he featured in the 3rd T20I against India in the recently-concluded series. He was handed the captaincy in the middle of the season last year but with time on his side this year, he’s expected to produce better results.
Trans-Tasman duo of Ferguson and Cummins: A lot will depend on the shoulder of the Trans-Tasman pace duo of Lockie Ferguson and Pat Cummins. While Aussie Cummins--who picked up 12 wickets in 14 matches last--will spearhead the attack, he will have a very able company in Ferguson. The Kiwi didn’t get to play all the games in UAE in 2020 but impressed one and all whenever he got the chance. In five matches, he picked up six wickets including a handy 3-wicket haul. It will be interesting to see how the team goes about playing them over the course of the season.
Forcing Narine into the mix: Narine took up the pinch-hitting role a few seasons back and has been made to open the batting since. The southpaw gets the license to play freely and score briskly. However, that hasn’t been going too well for the side as Narine consumed many deliveries without scoring efficiently. His slow start has often resulted in increased pressure on the middle order. Moreover, since correcting his action, Narine just hasn’t been the same bowler. The element of surprise from his action has vanished and he has become very predictable. KKR need to be pragmatic this year and understand that if there is no place for Narine, they shouldn’t try to forcefully fit him in.
Opening woes: Due to Narine’s repeated failure at the top, first Dinesh Karthik and then Eoin Morgan were forced to try out different opening pairs. Only Shubman Gill remained a constant throughout. The youngster was paired with Tom Banton, Rahul Tripathi, and Nitish Rana. Before the start of the season, Englishman Banton seemed like a no-brainer but KKR were only able to give him two games. It’s imperative for them to stick to one pair, which will then lead to security and stability in the middle order.
Fragile middle order: Talking about middle order, KKR just didn’t get it right last year. Over the course of 14 games, the side tried out a whopping 12 combinations for the top 5. 12 times in 14 games. That is quite remarkable considering how balanced they looked at the start. Karthik, at times, played at number 4 or at number 6. Russell and Morgan’s positions were also shuffled multiple times. Rahul Tripathi, who was a clear misfit at 6, was suddenly made to open. Such fragility was never going to bring stability. KKR must get their combination right this time to have a genuine shot at the title.
Shakib is back: Bangladesh all-rounder Shakib Al Hasan is back to IPL as he was roped in by KKR for Rs. 3.2 crore in the IPL Auction in February. The two-time champion, who was handed a one-year ban by ICC, was an ideal purchase for KKR as they needed a hard-hitting all-rounder with credible bowling abilities. Shakib is definitely more than credible as he is a former world number 1 all-rounder. The southpaw was formerly with the Sunrisers Hyderabad and has played 63 matches in the IPL, scoring 746 runs and picking 59 wickets. This is an ideal opportunity for him to redeem himself and lead the charge to their third title.
Can Varun Chakravarthy force the issue: Due to outstanding figures of 17 wickets in 13 matches during his first full-fledged IPL season in UAE, the Tamil Nadu leg spinner Varun Chakravarthy became an essential part of the team. He has several variations up his sleeve and was picked up by the Kolkata Knight Riders in 2020 to beef up their spin bowling department and he delivered. This earned him his maiden India call-up for the Australian Tour but he missed out due to an injury. Earlier this month, he was picked for the T20I series against England but he didn’t make the cut eventually as he failed to clear the fitness test multiple times. This decision sparked a raging debate on social media, with former cricketers and pundits criticizing the management for being too strict.
If Varun can produce an equally good season, if not better, and work on his fitness, he could turn heads and force the selectors to rethink their decision.
Could waste a player in Karun Nair: The franchisee bought former Punjab Kings batsman Karun Nair after he went unsold in the first round of auctions. Nair had a torrid season in UAE, scoring just 16 runs in 4 matches. He eventually lost his place. He has a triple century to his name in Tests but hasn’t been able to cement his place in the league. Moreover, it will be difficult for him to find a place in the middle order more often than not. This means KKR risk not utilizing him enough and hence, wasting talent in the Karnataka batsman.
Subdued spin attack: Veteran spinner Harbhajan Singh was added to the squad for ₹2 crore by the club. The four-time champion joins an impressive line-up consisting Varun Chakravarthy, Shakib Al Hasan, Kuldeep Yadav, and Sunil Narine. However, the problem lies in the match-time of these players. Harbhajan, formerly with CSK, missed the whole 2020 season, while Kuldeep Yadav only played 5 matches, bagging a solitary wicket. Narine claimed only 5 wickets in 10 matches as he was far away from his best. Shakib Al Hasan is returning after a long gap and Varun is going through off-field issues. Morgan will have a challenging time in uplifting this problem-laden spin attack and it has to start with getting the combination right.