Kolkata Knight Riders were in the midst of a transition period during last season’s IPL. Here we preview their chances for the 2021 season and consider whether KKR have been sufficiently reshaped to the extent that they can challenge at the very least for a playoff position if not a 3rd IPL title.
KKR Team Preview IPL 2021 – Batting
One of KKR’s primary issues last season was the balance of their batting line-up which they chopped and changed throughout the campaign as they searched for success.
At the top of the order, young Subman Gill has won many admirers for his elegant stroke play and looks like a player to watch particularly in the longer forms of the game for many years to come. He finished last season with 440 runs to his name making him KKR’s top scorer and yet question marks still remain over his ability to go up through the gears as his innings progresses.
In essence Gill batting through the innings with a S/R of around 120 isn’t a big problem as long as KKR can get men around him to compensate for his short comings as a T20 cricketer.
First port of call then is to consider who will open with Gill? KKR tried plenty of guys in this role during 2020 including Sunil Narine who on his day is a fantastic pinch hitter in the powerplay but who recently has been struggling to find those occasions nearly as often as he or the KKR management would like. The other options then include Nitish Rana and Raul Tripathi.
Rana is another player who has suffered at KKR with not really knowing his role in the side. Part and parcel of T20 cricket is having to adapt to game situations but Rana has been shunted up and down the order on a near game by game basis. We’ve seen glimpses of what he can do in the IPL and his 352 runs last season was a decent return but you feel that a man of his talents can push up above the 450 mark which is the standard set by the league’s most consistent top order players.
Rana has been playing at number 3 for Delhi in domestic T20 cricket this season and has been in good form. If KKR persist with Narine as the pinch hitting option then having Rana at 3 for the times that the experiment fails seems like a good ploy.
In Raul Tripathi, KKR had what I felt was an underated player who struggled for chances at a top heavy Rajasthan team in previous seasons. Therefore his returns from the 11 games he did get for KKR last season were something of a disappointment and his failure to have an impact in the domestic leagues in the meantime must come as a concern. The KKR think tank also have an obsession with ensuring a right hand, left hand combination is at the crease most the time (another reason for Rana being moved up and down the order) so playing Tripathi as Gill’s partner seems less likely.
If they did wish to to maintain that right/left combination they could opt for young Venkatesh Iyer whom they signed in this year’s auction. His 227 runs at an average of 76 and strike rate of 150 opening the batting for Madhya Pradesh in the Syed Musthaq Ali Trophy certainly caught the eye and convinced KKR to take a punt on him for this year’s IPL. Since then he’s also hit 198 in a 50 over game suggesting he will join his more established teammates full of confidence and may yet get a chance on the big stage.
On paper then comes a strong KKR middle order that really flattered to deceive in last year’s tournament. Eoin Morgan who took over the captaincy half-way through the 2020 season played some nice cameos on his way past the 400 run mark which is an excellent return for anyone playing outside the top 3 but he was all too often left to either pick-up the pieces of a poor start in the powerplay or play a lone hand towards the back end.
The experienced Dinesh Karthik had a really poor 2020 season contributing just 169 runs despite playing every match. Again there was some shifting around in regards his role and you’d hope that for this season, KKR ensure that he bats no higher than number 5 as he is more suited to the role of finisher than middle order accumulator.
In fact, the role of middle order accumulator is one that KKR seem to be lacking in general. Having Morgan and Karthik at 4 and 5 looks great if the top order gets the job done but if they don’t and that pair are forced to come in early as was the case on far too many occassions last season then there is the potential for the Knight Riders to be left short at the death. The aquisition of Karun Nair, a player who has a Test Match triple hundred does little to solve the problem and he seems to be utilized as a bowler as much as he does a batsman in domestic white ball cricket these days.
Then of course comes one of the most feared late order hitters and biggest stars of the IPL in Andre Russell. Form and fitness were in short supply for Dre last Autumn and he made no significant impact with the bat in the 10 matches he did manage. He has since played a handful of games in the Lankan T20 league but has not played a competitive game of cricket for 4 months.
The power hitting that both Russell and Narine offer to KKR is crucial but so too is the balance to the side with 2 all-rounders featuring in the top 7. With both players having disappointing 2020 campaigns, KKR moved quickly during the auction to secure back-up options in the form of Shakib Al-Hassan and Ben Cutting both players of significant experience in this league and T20 cricket in general.
Indeed Shakib fresh from his ban could prove one of the most astute signings of the recent auction and as well as his canny left-arm spin he could be the man to offer that much needed middle order stability mentioned above. Of course fitting him into the team would almost certainly require one of Russell or Narine to be left out so it is fair to say that KKR’s transistion period is far from over just yet!
KKR Team Preview IPL 2021 – Bowling
As noted above, one KKR’s apparent strengths are the bowling options they have at their disposal particularly when Russell is fully fit and firing on all cylinders with Nitish Rana even able to chip in as 7th bowling option when conditions allow it.
Russell at full pace can certainly play an important role as a mid-over enforcer and at the death allowing record signing Pat Cummins the opportunity to bowl at least 2 overs with the new ball. Lockie Ferguson also put in some useful displays last season in Russell’s absence and while his wickets sometimes can at the cost of a higher economy rate you get the sense that Morgan will be ok with that as long as the wickets do continue to come.
The concern however with playing Ferguson is that as was the case last season, it leaves KKR very short of lower order batsmen with Cummins being asked to bat as high as number 7 on some occassions. Again, Morgan and coach Brendon McCullum have historically favoured having a batting line-up with players capable of making a contribution down the order to allow their teams to play an attacking brand of cricket whatever the situation and this may well impact team selection for the upcoming IPL season.
Cummins was much maligned after a slow start to his KKR career following his record price at the 2020 auction. On a game by game basis he didn’t bowl too badly and certainly the luck was against him during the first half of the tournament. Equally, I feel that some sides were happy to take fewer risks against him with the knowledge that there were easier run scoring opportunities in later overs against lesser bowlers as demonstrated in the stats below that show only Varun and Cummins were regular performers for KKR with Mavi and Ferguson effective albeit from fewer games and then a real drop off both in wicket taking potency and economy rates.
Here again, I think Shakib will offer a better option to Narine whose impact as bowler has been waning for the last couple of years following injuries and bans for his suspect action. The other slow bowling option who KKR must be hoping will refind his mojo is Kuldeep Yadav who was rated as one of the most dangerous wrist spinners in white ball cricket at his peak but seems to be suffering with confidence crisis at present.
A team with a fully fit and firing Varun, Kuldeep Yadav and Shakib as slow bowling options would take some stopping particularly in favourable conditions (see below) and again we know from watching Morgan as the England captain that he is happy to back his spinners as wicket taking options. Could he be the man to revive Kuldeep’s career?
The real difference between the challengers and the no hopers tends to be the quality and performance of the home grown talent. In Nargakoti and Shivam Mavi, KKR invested heavily on a pair of bowlers based on their young raw talent and success at U-19 level. For the first couple of years, injury stunted their development and limited their opportunities but there were signs from both that KKR might be about to see a return on the sums paid several years ago for these 2 tear away quicks.
KKR Team Preview IPL 2021 – Venues
The Knight Riders will be playing the bulk of their games in Ahmedabad and Bangalore this season. With the former having not been used as an IPL venue for some time it’s diffucult to know with any confidence how the players might perform although the fact that KKR captain Eoin Morgan will be coming off the back of 5 x T20s at the venue with England certainly gives them an edge.
Bangalore meanwhile is a venue that most big hitting batsmen enjoy on account of its altitude. Certainly Dre Russel who has a Strike Rate of 240 and who has hit 14 maximums in the 55 balls he’s faced at this venue can agree!
However, KKR will start on the much slow and lower wickets in Chennai with their opening fixtures against SRH, Mumbai Indians and RCB. As noted above it may well be their slow options that give them an advantage here particularly with the experience of Harbajhan Singh who took 16 wickets in the 2019 season most which came on this pitch.
After their opening matches in Chennai, KKR move onto play the bottom 2 teams from last season’s IPL at the Wankhede where their bowlers both spin and pace generally have very good records.
If they can utilise the conditions well for those opening 5 games and get off to a good start then a play-off place is certainly not beyond this team.