Not only do milestones bring with them an occasion to rejoice, but they also urge one to pause: looking behind at the journey traversed. Reflecting upon the initial days of euphoria that remain mingled with the odd moments of doubts and frustration, each landmark then becomes a nostalgic route, wherein the harmonious hours of glories are thought and thought once more.
The year 2017 presents itself as that year to the cricket aficionado, particularly in India. Or to be more precise, to every individual who suddenly dons the hat of a cricket enthusiast, debating and analysing the game for mere two months in the year.
The tenth edition of the Indian Premier League got underway in Hyderabad on 5th April, forcing one to recap the blitzkrieg that is the tournament. While Brendon McCullum initiated the league to history, the innumerable controversies threatened to change the course of the carnival called IPL. Players stamped their authority with match defying knocks while five franchises floundered and exited the cash-rich tournament.
In the midst of the hullabaloo, a few teams successfully scripted their silent path to redemption. Starting off as the most over-hyped team that only provided lacklustre performances, Kolkata Knight Riders managed to dish out two trophies in the span of three years to mark their arrival with élan. Under the leadership of Gautam Gambhir, the Knights have formed a consistent chain of players in the last six years, who are responsible for spearheading the team to the playoffs yet again.
We have a look at the strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats possessed by the Shahrukh Khan-owned franchise.
“Heading back to old familiar places-
The old familiar crowds, with the old familiar sounds!”
One of Kolkata Knight Riders’ biggest strengths is the fact that they have managed to stick together with their core players ever since the team underwent an overhaul in the 2014 auctions. Led by the maverick Gautam Gambhir, KKR remains a balanced side with Robin Uthappa, Umesh Yadav, Manish Pandey, Suryakumar Yadav, Piyush Chawla, Yusuf Pathan, Sunil Narine and Shakib al Hasan all playing together ever since.
Not only does this allow each player be well aware of his own role in the team but also allows him to get accustomed to his teammates’ psychology and mind-set, that is very crucial in a long drawn out tournament like the Indian Premier League.
In the slam-bang version of the game, the onus lies on the availability of a large pool of cricketers who can portray the roles of a batsman and bowler to perfection, an aspect where KKR thrives upon. Having all-rounders like Pathan and Hasan effectively bolsters the middle order.
Even though KKR will rue Andre Russel’s absence, banned by the WICB for a year, his replacement, Englishman Chris Woakes remains a handy contributor with both bat and ball, while Rishi Dhawan can fit into the team as and well the opportunity comes knocking. Though not a consistent batsman, Chawla’s stupendous shots to guide KKR to the title in the 2014 IPL gives the management adequate options ahead of the tournament opener against Gujarat Lions as well.
Having always been a bowler-heavy team, KKR, this season too, has an impressive bowling arsenal at their disposal. Even though Umesh Yadav has been rested for the first two games after his hectic Test schedule for the Indian team, the likes of Nathan Coulter-Nile and Trent Boult will be major assets to the franchise. With an array of bowlers, Gambhir has the luxury to chop and change his team, adopting a “horses for courses” policy.
With Sunil Narine not at his effective best, the management has the option of playing either Boult or Coulter-Nile along with Chris Lynn when the pitch offers to assist the pacers. In slower pitches, Kuldeep Yadav, riding high on confidence after his sensational Test debut against Australia, can be more than a handful. Along with the handy off-spin of Pathan and the clever googlies of Chawla, Gambhir has always relied massively on his spin-team, who have never failed to disappoint.
KKR draws their strength from Gambhir’s aggressive captaincy, who has shown his man management skills to perfection in the six years at the helm. Be it his unconditional backing of Narine or ruthlessly placing aggressive cricketing fields, even to someone like Dhoni, KKR has drawn immense inspiration from the way the left-hander has managed to bring in shrewd tactics at opportune moments in the match and in his seventh year as captain, expect no passiveness from the opener.
A recurring issue has gripped the KKR top order for the last couple of seasons, which has been defined by inconsistent performances by their premium batsmen. Sans Gambhir, who scored more than 500 runs last season, the top four, Uthappa, Pandey and Suryakumar all averaged less than 30 in 15 matches with strike rates of less than 140.
With Pathan unable to replicate his swashbuckling performance for KKR consistently, the KKR marathon never gets forth in the first six overs, which often slows down the momentum for the rest of the innings, which always left too much for the likes of Hasan and Russel to conquer last season.
Suryakumar, the former captain of Mumbai in the Ranji Trophy, has the habit of falling prey to unnecessary shots, which leaves the team reeling. The lack of a current international star in the top 5 could spell doom for the Knights against a strong bowling line-up, like Mumbai Indians or Sunrisers Hyderabad.
With Russel missing this season, the team lacks a serious reliable pinch hitter who can take the game away from the opposition just by his mere presence. Darren Bravo hardly seems a threat in the shortest format and KKR could have been judicial in picking up a proven T20 batsman at this year’s auctions, to check the inconsistency that has been threatening them.
Losing wickets in tandem (who can forget KKR’s awful collapse in 2013 against Rajasthan Royals, collapsing from 121/1 to 123/6 in just seven deliveries), wreaked havoc by irresponsible shots at pressure moments is a plague that has been affecting the Knights for long.
The biggest weakness, however, can be pointed to the lack of a genuine wicket-keeper in the squad. While Uthappa does not even keep wickets for his domestic team Karnataka, the other keeper, Sheldon Jackson is hardly likely to get a game in.
The opener was nothing less than a disaster behind the stumps last season, with catches popping out from the gloves regularly or easy stumpings being missed in almost every game. With a number of byes given to the rival teams, Uthappa, on more than one occasion, was guilty of giving set batsmen another window of opportunity, which calculated to the team missing a spot in the final four.
Having made a late entry into the IPL draft pool, courtesy his magnificent run in the Syed Mushtaq Trophy, Ishank Jaggi has a massive opportunity to finally grab eyeballs after an incredible domestic season for Jharkhand. The 28-year-old, who averages an impressive 47 in 63 List A games, was bagged by the Knights at his base price of 10 lakhs, making him one of the best buys for a team at the 2017 auctions.
With the Champions Trophy in England scheduled just days after the conclusion of the IPL, the tournament presents Manish Pandey an excellent chance to seal his spot with consistency and runs. With Suresh Raina out of the Indian mix, at least as far as ODIs are concerned, and Rahane not the first choice as a limited-overs player, the opportunity presents itself to Pandey to make the most of it.
Umesh Yadav, India’s dark horse in the long Test season that preceded the IPL should remain confident of his performance for the purple and gold jersey as well. Having brought in a number of variations, which were on full display in the twelve Test matches that he played for India, the pacer would want to improve on his death bowling, which has proved to be his nemesis in this format.
Before yet another long season for India, Umesh has the prospect to emerge as the team’s bowling spearhead by constantly bowling the accurate deliveries at 140kmph. He has been given a well-deserved break by the KKR team, and one can expect the Vidarbha bowler to return re-energized and rejuvenated for their first home game on 13th April.
A glaring observation by the cricketing pundits in the IPL is that KKR has had the tendency to underutilise players who could have been more effective in a particular season. The likes of Mohammad Shami (who was not even given a game for the Knights despite being associated with them for two years!), Ryan ten Doeschate, Laxmi Ratan Shukla and even Chris Lynn are proven match winners on their day, yet failed to find favour with the KKR setup for reasons unknown.
Always a slow starter, KKR put themselves through unnecessary pressure wherein they are caught up in must-win situations by the business end of the tournament in almost every season. While they were knocked off by Rajasthan Royals in 2015 in their last must-win encounter, in 2016, they were ousted in the Eliminator.
Even when KKR won the championship in 2012 and 2014, they were, on both occasions, caught in a bottom half position in the IPL standings midway into the tournament. Though they managed to roll the dice and pick up momentum and eventually emerge triumphant, expecting them to do the same every time is a tough ask.
Lastly, it would be interesting to note how KKR play on a surface which has been revamped under the authority of Sourav Ganguly. Gone are the days when the Eden pitch would turn from ball one, a reason KKR were unbeatable at home. With a tinge of grass that offers swing, KKR’s top order would face an interesting contest when they go up against the likes of Mitchell McCleneghan, Bhuvneshwar Kumar or Jasprit Bumrah. Will the spinners be as effective? A question that can only be unravelled in the upcoming weeks.