Kolkata Knight Riders: Season Review
Played 14, Won 7, Lost 6, NR: 1.
W L W W L NR L W L W W W L L.
That KKR didn’t finish in the top four is perhaps the most surprising result of this IPL season. KKR are the defending champions and arguably the second best team in IPL history after CSK. They were also, with only a week to go in the league stage, seemingly close to playing their best cricket at a point in the season when their spin-dominated attack has previously thrived on tired, wearing pitches. Indeed, they needed to win just one of their last two matches to qualify, and lost them both. Before those final two defeats KKR had played solid, if not superb cricket. They didn't lose matches consecutively until their final two. KKR are the first team ever not to finish in the top four after collecting 15 points.
KKR are superbly well-run, perhaps the most well run team in the IPL. They have a good coach, a fantastic squad with awesome depth and a stable, familiar, practised and successful strategy. They are arguably the inverse of MI, who have managed to qualify in second place. So what went wrong?
Well, perhaps no one thing went wrong as much as nothing went as well as it could. Indeed, KKR did not have one player in the top ten run-scorers, and did not have one player in the top twelve wicket-takers. Perhaps KKR, often a reliable and consistent team, just missed that standout performer, that leader, that inspiration. In the past it has been Sunil Narine and last season it was Robin Uthappa. This season, most of their key players played well, but no one played brilliantly and in a tightly fought and competitive league, perhaps that is why they didn’t qualify.
It should also be said that while KKR have historically been a strong home team, capitalising on some dry pitches, this season, perhaps skewed by a home-reliant strategy, they were weak away from home, winning just twice. They were also unfortunate with rain, twice losing reduced-overs matches—matches decided more by luck than those over twenty overs—against SRH and RCB.
Of course, the cloud hanging over the legality of Narine’s action certainly cannot have helped KKR. Narine has been the fulcrum of their strategy for a few years now, and continued worries that he could be banned, or was banned, or was being tested, surely unsettled a traditionally calm and stable club. Indeed, their decision to “rest” Narine from their final, must-win group match against RR, playing Azhar Mahmood for the first time in the season instead, was massively surprising and very unlike KKR. Some people on Twitter put forward the not-so-ludicrous suggestion that perhaps KKR feared Narine being called again for chucking—he was on his final warning—and so by resting him they could ensure his participation in the Qualifier were they to win the match against RR. Such theories will never be proved, but suppose for a moment that they were true: it would surely be a case of a clever team perhaps getting a little too clever. KKR needed to win, and lost. Perhaps Narine would’ve made the difference. Although, as some people also pointed out, the Brabourne Stadium pitch doesn’t traditionally assist spinners and alternative selection Ryan ten Doeshcate had been released by KKR to play for Essex in England. Pat Cummins, however, was still available. Mahmood bowled three overs for 41 and scored 6 from 7 balls.
What’s more, to blame the worries surrounding Narine for KKR’s failure to finish in the top four would be ignoring the fact that Brad Hogg, who briefly replaced the banned and then testing Narine, performed well in his six matches, taking nine wickets, including 4-29 against CSK. Strangely KKR didn’t persist with Hogg, eventually dropping him for KKR’s match away to MI and not picking him after.
Another strange decision that could explain KKR’s inability to pick up the extra two points they needed for a top four finish was the dropping of Morne Morkel for Cummins. Cummins played three matches, of which KKR won just one, with Cummins taking just one wicket.
The biggest positive for KKR this season was Andre Russell, who scored 300 runs at a strike-rate of above 190 and was their leading wicket-taker, collecting 14 wickets. Russell is arguably on his way to becoming the leading T20 cricketer in the world and having picked him up for just 60 lakhs in the 2014 Auction he symbolises KKR’s Moneyball strategy. The maturity displayed by Yusuf Pathan, who scored 300 runs at a responsible strike-rate of 130 was also encouraging to see.
Looking forward, KKR don’t need to change too much but should also be wary of changing too little. They may have only just missed out on a top four finish, but to ignore signs of decline in the name of stability would be foolish.
One area they certainly should look at adjusting is their overseas balance. Since the days of Jacques Kallis at the beginning of last season, KKR haven’t picked a frontline overseas batsman, instead opting for two all-rounders and two bowlers. Now that Russell is as dominant as he is in the middle order, and Yusuf a little more consistent, there’s an argument to be made for recruiting a frontline batsman to play instead of the second all-rounder: Ryan ten Doeschate, Johan Botha or Shakib Al-Hasan. Perhaps a player with considerable international experience to split up the inexperience of Manish Pandey and Suryakumar Yadav, both of whom underwhelmed in the middle-order, would be a good option. Someone like Mahela Jayawardene or Kumar Sangakkara perhaps, or maybe someone like Shaun Marsh who could, if Gautam Gambhir or Uthappa struggle for form, come in as an opener.
KKR will certainly keep an eye on the developments regarding Narine, and given that Hogg is 44 years old and unlikely to be around much longer, should consider signing another established spin bowler. They do have strong spin-stocks though, and will hope youngsters Kuldeep Yadav and KC Cariappa can blossom into something special. They should also look at bolstering their ability away from home by signing an overseas fast bowler to act as a reserve for Morkel—Cummins showed himself to be inadequate this season.
Overall, KKR can perhaps count themselves a little unlucky not to have finished in the top four. However, for a team of their pedigree and with their depth and quality, they shouldn’t be relying on luck to get them there. KKR are a good team but they need to make minor refinements to ensure they aren’t about to experience a period of decline.