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The Extensive IPL 2021 Preview | Kolkata Knight Riders edition ft. Eoin Morgan and adventurous puzzle in hand

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Can KKR turn their fortunes around this season?

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The Extensive IPL 2021 Preview | Kolkata Knight Riders edition ft. Eoin Morgan and adventurous puzzle in hand

If being a Royal Challengers Bangalore fan was tough, then being a Kolkata Knight Riders fan is frustrating. The team always does the impossible things with ease but messes up the simplest of ones in the most cumbersome way.

Every year, plenty of A-listers end up on the playing XI for the Kolkata Knight Riders but every time that happens, they end up somehow scruffing themselves up, choking their way out of the tournament. Last year was no different. Despite having 12 points with a handful of games left to play, KKR went on a losing spree to finish outside the top four. 

As every season begins with optimism, this one too does, not knowing that KKR might end up in the playoffs, but wanting to know the various ways in which one team can mess up despite having the best of players in the lineup. Familiar questions should continue to haunt the batting and, on top of that, mystery bowlers would have to continue carrying the entire bowling unit. Nothing, not one bit should change, but just read the preview to find out what might change. 

What was the story last year?

After seven games, when they appointed Eoin Morgan as the new skipper, KKR were placed fourth, with four wins, needing as much in the second half of the season to go through. However, being the crazy child of the IPL family, they finished fifth, with just three wins in the second half, which eliminated them from the tournament. 

Where exactly do they stand this season?

Batting

A top-heavy side, Kolkata Knight Riders have always relied on their top-order to do the bulk of the scoring - be it Gautam Gambhir, Robin Uthappa or even Chris Lynn. Last season was no different, with Shubman Gill ending up as the leading run-scorer for the franchise, with 440 runs at an average of 33.84 and a strike-rate of 117.96. But with a loss of form for both Dinesh Karthik and Andre Russell, the franchise’s scores took a nosedive, with them scoring just 154.1 runs while batting first, on average. 

The star-studded KKR batting needs to fire 

The Powerplay | Merry-go-round and a dire mess in 2020; nothing to better in 2021

391 runs in 10 games batting first in the powerplay phase; 567 in 14 games at an average of 40.5. Kolkata Knight Riders batting in the powerplay sounds like a death knell. Only one team has a record that reads worse than them, that is Chennai Super Kings. 6.5 boundaries in the powerplay on an average but, despite that, they only scored 40.5 runs per game. Kolkata Knight Riders endured one of their worst-ever starts last season, in the powerplay overs. \

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Have they addressed any of the issues?

Throughout the last season, the Knight Riders had multiple batting partners to accompany Shubman Gill at the top of the order - Tom Banton, Sunil Narine, Nitish Rana and Rahul Tripathi. Across 14 innings last season, Gill ended up with a strike-rate of 118.5 in the powerplay. Nitish Rana, on the other hand, who started the last four innings as an opener, averaged 12.3 runs in the powerplay segment, with a strike-rate of 97.4. And yes, it was not ODI cricket. 

In simple terms, they haven’t quite addressed the issue. In fact, they have only further put themselves in a spot of bother. Even if they recall Rahul Tripathi at the top of the order, it statistically doesn’t solve their problems, with Tripathi averaging 16.5 with the bat in the powerplay while striking it at 113.8. The only prime solution will be to go a bit out of the box and open with Venkatesh Iyer. Now don’t be startled, he isn’t the first-choice opener and would never be for KKR in a normal time-zone but this is IPL, and KKR really don’t have an answer for their worries. 227 runs in Syed Mushtaq Ali Trophy at an average of 75.66 and a strike-rate of 149.34, Iyer might be a good contender. 

Middle overs | Left at the mercy of the skipper 

Dinesh Karthik, Eoin Morgan, Andre Russell, Sunil Narine - the middle-order shouldn’t be weak, right?  At least on paper? “On paper different, in reality different” was KKR’s theme last season as they only scored 56.071 runs in the middle-phase of the innings, striking 6.28 boundaries on an average. Not just that, they lost the most wickets in that segment from last year (37 wickets), averaging 21.22 runs per dismissal. 

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Now that’s where it gets worse, their middle-order probably is one of the best. How can they change that and, if needed, improve?

Quite simply, they can’t. They can’t improve on this middle-order, or at least they haven’t signed anyone with a view of rehauling their middle-order.  Their issue last season was the dreaded form of Karthik and Russell. The only solution for them? Changing the setup, the order, or just playing the right batsman at the right position. 

Morgan, at 4, for instance, strikes the ball at 166.7 whereas Russell at 4 strikes it at only 161.5 averaging 25, in comparison to the 42 at No.7. That’s where KKR would have a lot of work to do, rearrange their batting order in such a way that it gets the best out of them all. Dinesh Karthik, on the other hand, at No.6 averages 50 and strikes it at 200. Last season, with the franchise shuffling their middle-order so much, like it was the price of onions, it took a toll on their middle-order runs. 

Or just continue to use Sunil Narine as the floater. Last season, Narine averaged 18.5 with the bat in the middle-overs, at a strike-rate of 168, scoring 74 runs off 44 deliveries. That would be a decent ploy alongside playing the likes of Morgan, Karthik and Russell in their best positions. Another option they have is to go with Sheldon Jackson, who batted at No.3 scored and 242 runs for Puducherry, at an average of 80.66 while striking it hard at 155. 

Batting at the death | Fourth-best last season but would topple those records this season

771 runs in the last five overs last season at an average of 55 runs every game, KKR had the fourth-best record last season in the league. But that’s where it gets tricky. Note it down, it came at a strike-rate of 156.71. However, 79 runs were the highest they managed in the final phase, which in comparison is the second-worst amongst the other teams. It is also integral to understand that Morgan played the majority of the games last season as the finisher, scoring 261 runs in 183 deliveries. In one game, there was Rahul Tripathi at No.8, which only shows that this isn’t an attitudinal issue but an issue of strategy. 

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Last year, Russell scored just 17 runs in the last five overs at a strike-rate of 188.9. However, post that, in the Lanka Premier League, the all-rounder scored 61 runs off 29 deliveries, averaging 20 and striking at 210.3. Dinesh Karthik, who similarly started the IPL at the top of the order, in the final phase of the innings scored 106 runs off 55 deliveries, averaging 53 and striking it at 192.7. So in simple words, KKR’s death-overs batting is settled but unlike last season, they would have to move the duo of Russell and Karthik down the order and instead trust Narine in the middle-overs.

Verdict

Barring the top-order situation that they find themselves in, KKR’s entire unit depends a lot on the form of Eoin Morgan and Andre Russell, who in the past have blown hot and cold for the franchise. Russell, in particular, with his promotion at No.4, certainly didn’t spark any kind of confidence, which cost the franchise big time. However, this time around, hopefully with better planning, they should, at least on paper, topple all their efforts from the last season. Given KKR will play a lot on batting-friendly venues, barring the three in Chennai, they should comfortably topple their efforts from last season. 

Bowling

Even after spending Rs.15.5 crore on Pat Cummins, all that the Knight Riders could do from the last season was pick 13 wickets in the powerplay. Utter disaster, in fact, the worst in the league last year. Can it get any better? That surely would be the theme of questioning this time around too. 

Too much reliance on Varun CV? 

Powerplay | Pat Cummins held the fort last year, this year?

In the powerplay phase last season, if you called KKR from a far distance, they wouldn’t answer. Hell, they wouldn’t even respond if the death lord was next to them. On average, they conceded 46.57 runs in the first six overs phase, picking up just 13 wickets, 0.92 per game, averaging 50.15. That’s the worst figures in the league last season, remember that. Neither did they scare nor did they strangle. If anything, they suffered. 

Out of the 13 wickets last season, Cummins, their Australian pacer, picked up eight wickets at an average of 28.9 and an economy rate of 6.60. That was their cheat-code and everything around him was in tatters. Prasidh Krishna picked up none, Nagarkotti picked none, Mavi picked up four and Varun Chakravarthy picked up the other. 

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Who will get the wickets, Cummins or good-planning?

Since 2018, Pat Cummins has picked up nine wickets in the powerplay, out of which eight came for the Knight Riders last season, at an average of 27.4. Despite his price tag, his stature as the No.1 bowler in the longest format, Knight Riders have a big problem - he isn’t, wouldn’t and shouldn’t be the answer for everything. And neither have the others performed in the last year or the one before; all of their pacers from the last year have struggled big time. 

However, they have made some valuable signings this season, two of whom could give them a really good option in the first six overs - Harbhajan Singh and Vaibhav Arora. Now Harbhajan did miss out on last season but in the two seasons that prevailed before that, he picked up 11 wickets in the powerplay, averaging 25.1 with the ball. 

And Vaibhav Arora, another new-ball option, has really made a name for himself in the recently concluded edition of Syed Mushtaq Ali Trophy. The pacer was instrumental in Himachal Pradesh’s run to the quarter-finals. In four out of the six games that they played in the season, the pacer accounted for two or more wickets in the powerplay. Not just that, his raw pace and ability to move the ball was a real concern for the batsmen. 

But there’s another option, one that they ignored last season - the raw pace of Lockie Ferguson. Pace enforcers really made their IPL big, Anrich Nortje was just one of them. With Ferguson still in the setup, KKR could really use him in the powerplay, with the pacer having picked up 8 wickets at an average of 15.5 and an economy rate of 7.29 in the powerplay for his national side. Or, another handy option could be Sandeep Warrier,  who picked up just three wickets for Tamil Nadu in the powerplay but ensured that the opposition had a tough time, conceding just 7.81 runs in the phase. 

Middle-overs | Varun Chakravarthy remains the ace in the pack of cards

Ah, the middle-overs, where KKR have turned the fortune around last season, all riding on the back of a wonderful season from Varun Chakravarthy, who picked up 17 wickets, at an average of 20.94 at an economy rate of 6.84. In fact, the mystery spinner accounted for 10 of his 17 wickets in the overs from 7-14. Around him, however, there were 17 more wickets to the tally, which meant KKR picked up 27 wickets in the middle-overs, fourth-best in the tournament, picking 1.92 wickets every innings. 

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Will Varun Chakravarthy be found out this season?

Apart from Sunil Narine, world cricket has never seen a mystery spinner have two good seasons in a row.  Not even Ajantha Mendis, who ruled the world at one point in time, managed to do it. So the possibility of Varun having a great season is just well beyond expectations, especially considering his injury status. KKR’s first three games would be in Chennai, where 58.42% of the wickets have been taken by spinners. 

KKR, with a spin attack of Harbhajan Singh, Kuldeep Yadav, Sunil Narine, Varun Chakravarthy, Shakib Al Hasan would be aiming to get the side off to a strong start. However, the duo of Sunil Narine and Kuldeep Yadav endured their toughest season last year, with six wickets in between them, averaging nearly 76 with the ball. 

Now, with Varun, Shakib and Harbhajan, KKR might strike gold. Last year, 37% of KKR’s wickets in the middle-overs came via Varun, who picked up 10 wickets, showing that KKR have struggled as a team barring him. However, that’s where the duo of Shakib and Harbhajan could help the franchise, especially in picking up wickets. Since 2019, Harbhajan has picked up 7 wickets in the middle-overs, at an average of 17.5, conceding just 6.39 runs per over. On the other hand, Shakib, in the same time frame, has picked up 16 wickets in the middle-overs, averaging 24.5 while conceding 6.83 runs per over. Quite simply, it might not be enough, but it will still, nevertheless, be an upgrade from last season.

Once they move out of Chennai though, the franchise would play the majority of their games in Bangalore, one of the best batting wickets in the country. At the venue, leg-spinners are the ones with the most success, which would come as a deterrent for the franchise, who don’t possess an outright leg-spinner. Fast bowlers, Chinaman and left-arm orthodox bowlers go plenty at the venue, something that might impact the franchise severely. 

Death overs | Struggle last season but don’t expect anything better this season

Seventh-best death bowling or second-worst from last season, Kolkata really endured one of their worst bowling performances in the IPL, just behind Rajasthan Royals, who finished last. This season, they haven’t added one bowler who can improve their performance from last year, so expect nothing short of a hammering. While they did curb the economy rate, their average and wickets column still was dry. Just 28 wickets in the last five overs combined, with a season average of 25.43 certainly cost them more runs than usual. 

The death-knell of KKR’s death bowling

Their hands are also tied, especially in the death overs, with them needing a choice to make between Pat Cummins, Andre Russell, Lockie Ferguson and Kamlesh Nagarkkoti. Shivam Mavi was their most impressive bowler, picking up 3 wickets in 5 overs while conceding 43 runs. Russell, who was entrusted with the death over duty, picked up 5 wickets in 10 overs, conceding 110 runs. Lockie, who bowled 12 overs, picked only 3 wickets while their costliest bowler, Cummins, picked up the 2 wickets at the death. 

Their only signing who can offer wickets at the death is Ben Cutting, who has picked up 7 wickets in the death, but he concedes 11.3 RPO, so it shouldn’t give the franchise too much hope. Given that they are playing a majority of their games at the Chinnaswamy, with a bowling attack less favouring the conditions, the results aren’t expected to change one bit. However, if Andre Russell does show his Lanka Premier League form, where he picked up five wickets in the last phase of the innings, at an average of 11.5 and a strike-rate of 7.5, the Knight Riders surely can pick up the pace. 

 Verdict

Overall, the Knight Riders have made some improvements on their squad from last season, especially in the bowling department, strengthening their powerplay bowling, with the likes of Harbhajan Singh, Vaibhav Arora. But, apart from that, the bowling attack still is headlined by Pat Cummins, with assistance from Andre Russell. Given that Kuldeep Yadav has had a fall in form, the franchise desperately needs their star-bowler Varun Chakravarthy to shine. Otherwise, rest-assured, they are doomed. 

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