Kolkata Knight Riders (KKR) came into this year’s Indian Premier League as one of the hot favourites, even by its critics to win the title. And this is primarily due to their remarkable turnaround the previous season, in which they finished fourth in the competition out of ten teams. But the same critics will now go back to resume their business of admonishing the team, following their disastrous performances against the Delhi Daredevils and Rajasthan Royals in the first two matches of the competition. For that matter, even the fans would now be disgruntled and wondering what could now possibly be the chances of their team ensuring an encore of 2011.
Their first match was at the Eden Gardens, their home ground against the team led by Virender Sehwag, Delhi Daredevils. The stadium was almost full, with the atmosphere being electric which is a typical production of the Kolkata crowd. However, rain threatened to play spoilsport and consequently the match was reduced to a 12-over per side affair. To make matters worse for Gautam Gambhir and co., Sehwag won the toss and decided that the Daredevils will bowl first. Perhaps, that must have played a huge role in creating huge pressure in the batting line-up since they had to deliver in mediocre conditions and set a defendable total.
And most of us know what happened after that. Kolkata kept losing one wicket after another and Morne Morkel was on a role, so much so that the home team was reduced to 31/4 at one stage. It was only due to some lustrous hitting from the domestic duo of Debabrata Das and Laxmi Ratan Shukla that made the Knight Riders reach the score of 97 in 12 overs. They lost 9 wickets, with none of the superstar batters firing. It was always going to be difficult attempting to defend such a total when the opposition side has batsmen such as Virender Sehwag and conditions becoming better for batting with each ball.
KKR did seem to be in business for a few minutes, when Sehwag was dismissed in the final stages of the match. But the Victorian batsman, Aaron Finch had already done the damage at the beginning and it had to take just one good over to hand Delhi a much needed win. That over was bowled by Marchant de Lange, the South African pacer who had zero experience when it comes to bowling in Indian conditions and Gambhir realized later that this was a major strategic error that he committed. Irfan Pathan, who has been in great form with the bat off late in domestic cricket was promoted to bat at No.3 by Sehwag, a la the Greg Chappell era and decided to take on the pace dependent de Lange. The game was over with five balls to spare and the Daredevils pulled off an 8-wicket victory.
de Lange was not a part of the playing XI in the match in Jaipur against the Rajasthan Royals and finally, the West Indies’ spin sensation Sunil Narine made his much anticipated IPL debut for his second T20 club. This was an obvious swap because of the conditions at the Sawai Mansingh Stadium but then again the strategy could have worked better if Gambhir would have been more analytical enough to use the toss in his favour. Instead of batting first, he decided to field first believing that the bowlers would do justice to the team on a dry pitch and perhaps he may have been afraid of allowing his team to set a target, after the home mishap against Delhi.
Rajasthan Royals, who have been on a high following the win against Punjab at home on Friday took full advantage of losing the toss and their otherwise average looking batting line-up succeeded in making the much fancied Kolkata bowling attack sweat. Apart from Brett Lee and to an extent Narine, none of the bowlers could stamp their authority and had to submit to some incredible hitting from ironically two ex-KKR players, Brad Hodge and Owais Shah. That ensured that Kolkata had to chase 165 to arrest Rajasthan’s winning streak at home batting first. It did not happen and the reason was primarily the same which made them lose the previous match as well.
It is the batting order and the selection policy to a certain extent. Jacques Kallis may be a legend and came into the competition in great form, yet 9 runs in 2 outings do not make a good reading. So it is with Brendon McCullum, who has only scored 11 runs so far and has been dismissed in both the matches lbw, trying to play aggressively off the back foot. Agreed that players take time to adjust to different conditions and format of the game, but this is not expected at all from players of this class. Whereas, the skipper Gambhir cannot breathe easy either as he has also struggled with the ball slightly pitching outside off-stump and has succumbed to it in both the games, allowing him to score only 16 runs at the moment with a first-ball duck in Jaipur.
In my opinion, it is high time that the KKR team management take tough decisions for the better of the team. Kallis is a big name but if he is hurting the team with his batting, then he should be demoted in the batting order to perhaps No.3 or No.4 and allow Gambhir to play his natural game by opening with McCullum. And if his bowling continues like this, then he should possibly be dropped from the team altogether and replaced by Ryan ten Doeschate, who is talented enough to bat anywhere in the middle order and score at a much quicker pace than Kallis and of course bowl a minimum of two overs required.
Or if not Doeschate, then Shakib al Hasan has to play. The Bangladeshi all-rounder is in the form of his life, following a resurgent Asia Cup for his country. What is the point in making him warm the benches, when he is in such a state of mind that he can confidently bowl an entire 4-over spell and contribute many runs with the bat? Shakib’s attributes make him an ideal T20 cricketer indeed. Doeschate and Shakib may hail from countries which do not have a rich cricketing legacy, but they cannot be underestimated because it is performers and not big names which matter in T20 cricket. T20s after all are a fine example of the fact that it is no point having the best of talent or resources with you, if you cannot use them well enough.
However, it is not so simple to drop McCullum because he is a wicketkeeper of high quality and not just an opening batsman, which will be the key to the Knight Riders’ success later on. Manvinder Bisla is not that viable an alternative as seen in the previous season because he is more of a pinch hitter than an opener. While McCullum and Shakib or Doeschate could be amongst the foreign batsmen, Lee and Narine should be the foreign bowlers as these two boost the other bowlers to a massive extent especially with the form that they are in at the moment. Gambhir, Wasim Akram and the rest of the team management have to come to an agreement where they can form such a playing XI and a batting order especially which performs on the day rather than that playing XI which did well in the past, because that does not matter in T20 cricket.
And what is the ‘renowned’ psychologist Dr. Rudi Webster doing with the team? Instead of motivating the players to do wonders on the field, it seems that he is pressurizing them to perform or perish. In IPL 2011, the same outfit was more bubbly and cheerful and seemed to be a much happier unit than it is at present. After watching both the games closely, all the players apparently seem to be tense from their body language and hence are not able to focus properly on the game going on. The mind has to be in this moment and nowhere else, and a slip of concentration in T20s even of one player, can be extremely fatal for a team. Perhaps, this is a move which the Knight Riders should not have taken and it remains to be seen if Webster can instigate a turnaround for the side since his role is crucial in a crisis situation like this. He will have to form that sort of relationship with Gambhir especially to get his job done, since the captain is the man who eventually motivates his players to deliver.
Then of course comes the captaincy issue. Maybe the Indian selectors were correct in stripping the Delhite off the post of vice-captain because clearly, he does not possess those qualities which are required to be a leader in any format of the game in terms of mental and intellectual abilities. He tends to be more often not, reactive rather than proactive which does not work all the time in T20s. It is true that it was under his stewardship that Kolkata qualified in the last four for the first time ever, something the team could not do under a much better captain, Sourav Ganguly in the first three seasons. But Gambhir was fortunate that the team was in such good form that they did extremely well, with a few players doing a fabulous job since they were not facing many expectations as such.
I guess though, that the team does not have an alternative player to lead the side as McCullum has already been a failure with KKR in 2009 in the season in South Africa as captain and Manoj Tiwary needs to focus on his batting and is too inexperienced to be handed over the captaincy in T20 cricket, despite leading Bengal in the Ranji Trophy. Yusuf Pathan is not that deserving a candidate to become captain while it does not make sense to make a foreign player the leader of the team because of the chances that he may be unavailable for the season and the building of a successful team in the long run only takes place when one man is inspiring enough to take the decisions for the others, and that should be an Indian preferably.
There might be that thought that the owners may also be partly responsible for the team’s failures. Yes, Kolkata Knight Riders is arguably the most popular franchise in the IPL because of Shahrukh Khan, but is he proving to be too much for the team yet again? An owner of a USD 75 million team which has players of high international reputation will naturally have a lot of expectations from it to do very well. This is the reason why he is adamant on consistent marketing of his team, and consequently the Knight Riders have to be in the news for some reason or the other. He may prove to be a liability for the side because of his active involvement in cricketing issues and not just non-cricketing issues.
In the first three seasons, the Bollywood superstar seemed to have problems with the then icon player, Sourav Ganguly on several issues and was held responsible for removing him as captain for the 2009 season because of his belief that the coach should be the one to take important decisions for the side. This maybe something to be shocked with, but individually any player who has played for Kolkata Knight Riders earlier, is now playing better with the current IPL team he plays for. Chris Gayle, Brad Hodge, Sourav Ganguly and Ashok Dinda may be a few examples.
Or most of the players, who currently play for Kolkata, were better off with the teams they have previously played for. In this case, Yusuf Pathan is a glaring example because he is not the same force with the bat or ball as such currently that he was with Rajasthan Royals. Gautam Gambhir and Jacques Kallis have also had a lesser impact on KKR then they had with the Delhi Daredevils and Royal Challengers Bangalore respectively, because of the lesser batter averages that they possess playing for this team.
Shahrukh needs to understand that this team is still in the transition phase and good teams are not built overnight because they take effort in doing so. He could take a leaf out of the books of his close friends and rival IPL owners, Mukesh Ambani and Vijay Mallya who do have the love for their teams to go all out in ensuring that their teams be the best that they can but leave it to the team management and the support staff to ensure that their strategies are implemented.
He may be under the illusion that since he is by far the best actor in the country, his reputation is at stake if his team fails to perform decently. Cricket and Bollywood may form a good combination, but are two different entities and he must surrender to professionals who are better than him in solving cricketing matters. In case the team is in a crisis situation much deeper than this, then he has to interfere and cheer up his team while making decisions for their benefit too.
If a team loses one game, it is no big deal because both win and loss are a part of sport, and there is a high certainty of unexpected losses in T20 cricket. But if a team loses two games on the trot, there has to be some problem or the other. This has to be sorted out by the Kolkata Knight Riders team management as quickly as possible and it can only be done when they all agree that there is a problem to be solved, rather than denying it and thus avoiding to even looking into the problem.
The team’s next contest is against a much fancied Royal Challengers Bangalore outfit in Bangalore, and Daniel Vettori’s men would start as favourites going into this game also due to the fact that they beat Delhi Daredevils in their previous game at home. And then at Eden Gardens, the Knight Riders will have to contend with the Rajasthan Royals yet again. It is time that Gambhir and co. pull up their socks and begin their ascend in this competition. Otherwise, I would not be stunned to see a repeat of the IPL 2009 in which they finished at the bottom of the points table even if I have a soft corner for the men in Purple and Gold.
It may be too early to predict the team’s downfall but if the performances continue like this and considering the fact that Kolkata have much tougher opposition to play later, such as Mumbai Indians and Chennai Super Kings, it may happen soon.