Kolkata Knight Riders are deserving champions of the fifth season of the Indian Premier League, but for the first three editions of the Twenty20 tournament, the franchise was the favourite whipping boy for the rest and also provided enough off-field entertainment, not always for cricket reasons. The foundation for KKR's run to the trophy in IPL-5 was really set up in the auction last year.
The KKR management decided then it was time for a fresh start and as a result they re-built the team from scratch with Gautam Gambhir being their most prized acquisition. They then built the team around Gambhir with successful bids for Yusuf Pathan, Jacques Kallis, Manoj Tiwary, Shakib al Hasan and Brett Lee among others as a competitive unit was put in place. To give credit where it is due, the team management took a massive risk as they didn't bid for former India captain Sourav Ganguly, who is an iconic figure in West Bengal. This did miff more than a few of their fans, but the revamped Knight Riders finished in the top four in 2011 and qualified for the Champions League Twenty20 - a first for the franchise in the four seasons of the IPL.
At the start of IPL-5, the Knight Riders were seen as dark horses for the title. But, their campaign started with two consecutive defeats before they won 10 of their next 14 matches (one of which was abandoned), as they grew in confidence and consistency and eventually finished second behind Delhi Daredevils after the league stage. Gambhir was the undisputed star performer for Knight Riders, both as a batsman (590 runs at 36.87 and strike rate of 143.55) as well as a captain.
In fact, it would be fair to say that one of the gains for Indian cricket from IPL-5 has been Gambhir's exemplary leadership qualities on and off the pitch. Gambhir did well as Knight Riders' captain in IPL-4 as well, but he was at an altogether different level in the just concluded season, even as he remained true to his intense and combative personality.
Gambhir was one of the two main contributors to Knight Riders' run to being crowned champions - the other was West Indies offspinner Sunil Narine, who the franchise bagged for $700,000 in the IPL-5 auction. And, Narine proved to be worth every penny and more as he bamboozled opposition batsmen with his variations, especially the knuckle ball that was hardly picked up by any batsman. Narine took 24 wickets in IPL-5, only one less than Purple Cap winner Morne Morkel; those wickets came at an average of 13.50 and an incredible economy rate of 5.47.
But, as Gambhir continuously reinforced and reiterated, "it's about the team and not individuals". As captain, Gambhir did certainly walk the talk as he backed a core group of players despite some lacklustre performances, including the out-of-form Yusuf Pathan, who he backed to the hilt. Gambhir may have supported his teammates from outside criticism, but he was also quick to vent his frustration on the under-performing middle-order batsmen on a couple of occasions; which was one of the very few areas of concern for the Knight Riders.
Kallis, one of cricket's greatest all-rounders also played his part with bat and ball; while Brendon McCullum and Manoj Tiwary also made a couple of useful contributions with the bat. Shakib didn't get too many opportunities with the bat, but his 12 wickets at an economy rate of 6.50, helped him seal the fourth foreign players' slot as the tournament progressed.
One of the other factors behind Knight Riders' successful campaign was the contribution by their Indian cricketers (both capped and uncapped) with L Balaji, Rajat Bhatia, Debabrata Das, Iqbal Abdulla and Manvinder Bisla all playing their part. Bisla's 48-ball 89 that helped Knight Riders defeat Chennai Super Kings in the final, will be remembered as one of the best innings under pressure so far in the five seasons of the IPL.
Knight Riders were also a tightly knit unit and played for each other under Gambhir's inspirational leadership, who used all his experience and man management skills to the hilt to unify a team made up of players from different nationalities. In the end, it was the Knight Riders that wanted the IPL-5 title the most to wash away the memories of the humiliating first three editions and give their fans lots to cheer about.
The Gambhir-led Knight Riders certainly achieved their mission in style and no one will dispute that they were the most consistent and all-round team of IPL-5, and deserved to be crowned champions of the 2012 season.
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Kolkata Knight Riders: Road to IPL-5 final
KKR are not about individuals: Gambhir
I’ve emerged a better cricketer: Manvinder Bisla
I would like to remain a mystery bowler: Narine
Kolkata celebrates Knight Riders success at Eden Gardens