IPL 2023 | Kolkata Knight Riders – A hollow sinking ship rotting from inside

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Kolkata Knight Riders went from being the most astute side at auctions to struggling with their purse and making random big-budget buys in 2022. Now, with skipper Shreyas Iyer also unavailable, the franchise requires some unsung heroes to emerge to secure their sinking ship in the upcoming season.

Go big or go home – Kolkata Knight Riders have never been afraid of taking bold calls and being pioneers in one way or another. Korbo, Lorbo, and Jeetbo truly encapsulate their philosophy – never let your spirit break and fight for glory regardless of how the stakes are placed. No wonder then that over the years, the franchise has had a history of charismatic captains specializing in influencing the dressing room, be it Sourav Ganguly, Brendon McCullum, Gautam Gambhir or Eoin Morgan.

Shreyas Iyer became the latest addition to the list in 2022 but failed to have the same impact as his predecessors as the team finished a disappointing seventh under him, managing just six victories in their 14 games. Renowned for their tactical acumen and the ability to piece together squads with pinpoint balance, the side seemed like a shadow of itself in last year’s mega auction. Now, with the skipper also unavailable for the 2023 season and no replacement for the role announced yet, it would be no less than a miracle if the fans manage to keep their spirit intact given the inevitable downfall that awaits them.

That being said, the team did have some positives to take away from their campaign. Surprise pick Umesh Yadav emerged as a revelation, the pacer undergoing a remarkable rejuvenation to emerge as the team’s second-highest wicket-taker in the tournament with 16. His consistency made KKR the fourth-best team in terms of breaking opening stands early, not allowing the opposition to settle. The Caribbean duo of Sunil Narine and Andre Russell worked in tandem in the middle overs, the former building up the pressure and the latter capitalizing on it. Kolkata conceded the second least runs between overs 7 and 15 on average, while also scalping the third most wickets in the period. Tim Southee capped off the unit with precise death bowling, earning the franchise the third rank in terms of the least runs conceded in the final five overs.

There were much fewer reasons to be optimistic about the batting, albeit the side did dominate the middle overs. Its average of 77 runs scored in the nine-over phase was the highest across all 10 franchises, buoyed by contributions from Nitish Rana, Shreyas Iyer, and Andre Russell. In fact, the trio contributed over 50% of the runs for KKR across the entire tournament, playing a major role in helping stabilize the team in times of despair.

Of course, the negatives far outweighed any potential reasons for hope for Kolkata. The team’s struggles with the willow were immediately evident through the fact that they tried six different opening combinations in 14 matches, the most in the season by far. Unsurprisingly thus, KKR had the worst average opening stand of all teams which translated to third-least runs in the powerplay, coupled with the most wickets lost during the first six overs. The damage was not limited to the powerplay either as despite the reliability offered by Rana and Iyer, the Purple and Gold brigade lost the most wickets of all teams in the middle overs. All that meant the team was left with few resources approaching the death overs, leading to the side having the second least runs scored in the last five overs on average. Overall as well, the franchise had the lowest average score in the first innings by a significant margin of six runs compared to the second-worst team, while also losing the most wickets across the tournament.

The bowling, as previously established, was much better off but still worrisome. One deficiency that stood out was the team’s inability to capitalize on good starts with the ball in the powerplay, as they had the third least wickets in the phase on average despite striking early more often than not. The team evidently lacked a second strike bowler to aid Umesh Yadav, with Tim Southee only managing four wickets in the eight matches in which he took the new ball.

Nevertheless, the team had the opportunity to rectify certain aspects of their balance at the IPL Auction in December. The franchise let go of a startling 14 players, well aware of their need to improve. The major overhaul also offered the team a chance to mould a squad as per the conditions expected in Eden Gardens with the IPL set to return to the traditional home-away format after a three-year hiatus. Historically a green track, the venue produced spin-friendly pitches for several years in the IPL once the side acquired Sunil Narine, a decision that reaped the rewards. Since the start of the marquee tournament through to the 2016 edition, fast and medium-pace bowlers had the worst average as well as strike rate at the venue – they conceded a run more per over than the off-spinners while wickets came at the cost of six additional runs. However, 2017 saw the venue revert to its ideals as the franchise acquired five foreign frontline seamers including Trent Boult and Nathan-Coulter Nile. Since, pacers have once again had the best average at the venue, far surpassing their spin counterparts.

Keeping the same idea in mind, Kolkata further bolstered an already strong pace attack by trading in Kiwi Lockie Ferguson from Lucknow Super Giants for INR 10 crores, adding to the threat posed by Southee and Yadav. Another trade saw the side secure the services of divisive Indian bowling all-rounder Shardul Thakur, who himself has proven to be more than handy in helpful conditions in the past. In David Wiese, the team put faith on another superstar associate all-rounder after featuring Ryan Ten Doeschate in the past for five years, with the Namibian not only a capable bowler but also a brilliant finisher with the bat. Albeit there is little chance of him making the playing XI, the franchise has covered its base by securing him as a direct replacement for Andre Russell should something unfortunate befall the West Indian – an occurrence that has derailed KKR’s season in the past.

In the batting department, the side filled the spot of a missing wicket-keeper batter by acquiring N Jagadeesan who showed great promise at SMAT 2022, averaging nearly 30 while striking over 130. The onus would be on the 27-year-old to lock down the opener’s slot as his own and bring the side some stability at the top of the order, perhaps the side’s biggest woe in 2022. Lastly, the team welcomed back Shakib Al Hasan to the franchise following an impressive run of form for Bangladesh. Operating at number three for The Tigers, the all-rounder has experienced a great ascendancy in responsibility following the news regarding Shreyas Iyer. More than capable of holding the fort down for the team while others around him take the charge, it remains to be seen whether the veteran can fulfill expectations.

There is also an added element of strategy in the IPL 2023 with the introduction of the Impact Player Rule. The ability of a side to sub a player in the middle of a game means teams now have to prepare not 11 but 12-man lineups, adding a great number of possibilities in terms of combinations for franchises.

KKR, however, has perhaps the least ideal squad to make full use of the rule but they still have a couple of options at their disposal. While the 10.75 crore price tag might deter the side from using Shardul Thakur as just an Impact Player, it is the option that makes the most sense for KKR. The franchise primarily used Umesh Yadav as a powerplay specialist, with the pacer bowling 40 of his overs in the six-over phase as compared to 26 overs in the remaining part of the innings. Usually, the spearhead was bowled out within the first eight overs. Thereby, the side can bring in Thakur to not only bolster the side’s middle-over bowling but also give them an extra batting option in the lower middle order. Similarly, if the side bats first, a specialist batter such as Mandeep Singh could be replaced with someone like Varun Charavarthy after being dismissed, adding a handy lower-order batter and a primary bowling option to the lineup.

All said and done, the improvements have hardly reduced KKR 's possibility of a last-place finish for what would only be the second time in the franchise's history after 2009. It would be no less than miraculous for the franchise to even manage a sniff of the playoffs as they seem doomed for a mid-table finish at best and a disastrous season at worst.

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