Inconsistent KKR need top order to fire

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Agarkar: All-round combo of Russell-Shakib lifts KKR

2015 form

Kolkata Knight Riders had the opportunity to make the playoffs if they managed to win one of their final two away matches. But on both occasions, they failed to chase down the target, against Mumbai Indians and Rajasthan Royals. The defending champions eventually finished fifth, having recorded seven wins (only two away), six defeats (five away) and one match that ended in no result after being abandoned due to rain.

Big Picture

In 2012, they won their first IPL title. The following season, they finished seventh. In 2014, they won their second title. Last year, they finished fifth. Will Kolkata Knight Riders be third-time lucky this season?

If they are to become the first team in the IPL to win three crowns, the Knight Riders need to polish their finishing skills and death bowling, two areas they were vulnerable in last season. Needing just one win from their final two matches, the Knight Riders lost to Mumbai Indians and Rajasthan Royals, both at the Brabourne stadium.

Mumbai looted 72 runs after being 99 for 4 in 15 overs. Rajasthan started in dominant fashion and had crossed 100 by the halfway stage before scoring a relatively modest 53 in the final five overs. Even though Knight Riders lost both matches by a small margin – five and nine runs respectively – it exposed their fragility in the lower order and the inability of the top order to create a solid platform.

Knight Riders captain Gautam Gambhir and his opening partner Robin Uthappa need to take the responsibility of establishing a strong start. Last year, Knight Riders’ top-order batsmen (Nos. 1 to 3) averaged 25.44 with just four 50s in 13 matches (38 innings). Only Kings XI Punjab were worse.

There is bound to be a change in mindset with Jacques Kallis now having migrated to the head coach position after his retirement. He takes the seat vacated by Trevor Bayliss, who moved on to become England coach last year. The big advantage is the familiarity between Kallis and the team as well as the franchise management and owners, a key aspect in T20 leagues. Kallis will be assisted by former Australian batsman Simon Katich.

One advantage Knight Riders have is being one of the few teams with an established set-up. Only Mumbai Indians, and to an extent, Kings XI Punjab have retained their core players, while making minor changes to the existing squads from previous years. Gambhir has remained at the helm for a long time now, and all his senior lieutenants know their roles and are proven match-winners. It is about reminding themselves of those basics in crunch situations once again.

Burning Question

Will Sunil Narine 2.0 be as effective as his old self?

With the focus on his bowling action likely to be as severe as it was last year, the West Indies offspinner is likely to play a restricted role till he becomes totally confident with his new action. In the interim, the onus is on senior Australian left-arm spinner Brad Hogg. Hogg showed last year that he can share the workload with Uttar Pradesh spin twins Piyush Chawla and Kuldeep Yadav. Chawla, with his legbreaks, and Kuldeep, the chinaman bowler, with his lethal googlies, helped Uttar Pradesh win the Syed Mushtaq Ali title in January, and they will once again play a crucial role in the middle overs.

The go-to man

No doubt Andre Russell, last IPL’s MVP, will be up there. But it is his overseas team-mate Shakib Al Hasan, who might play a lead role this season for the Knight Riders. Unlike last year where he was forced to play the home series against Pakistan and missed out on the first half of the tournament, the Bangladesh allrounder will be available for entire season. Shakib was the only allrounder with more than 200 runs and ten wickets when the Knight Riders won the IPL in 2014. He is one of four KKR allrounders to achieve this in any IPL season. Shakib fits into any rung of the batting order: he can build a platform or explode towards the end. Also, with his left-arm spin, he has the knack of pushing the opponent on the backfoot and sneaking past the edge or the defensive bat frequently.

Bargain buy

If you have seen Colin Munro reverse sweep an international fast bowler into the stands, you would understand how brutal this left-hand batsman can be. Munro is the owner of the second-fastest fifty in T20 internationals, which came off 14 deliveries against Sri Lanka at Eden Park in January. As New Zealand captain Kane Williamson put it, it was like watching a highlights package, which was enough to get Munro into the World T20 squad, and possibly played a role in Knight Riders picking him late in the auction for just INR 30 lakh (US$44,000 approx). Since January 2015, Munro’s strike-rate of 156.55 is fourth-best among those who have faced 500-plus balls. The ones ahead of him are Russell, Chris Gale and AB de Villiers. Knight Riders can do with Munro’s ballistic launches, especially in the Powerplay where they struggled last season.

Availability

Sunil Narine lost his father recently and had to head back home to Trinidad. Kallis mentioned Narine would be given as much time as he needed to decide when he wants to play. Narine has not bowled in competitive cricket since being banned by the ICC in November last year. Although he was named in the original 15-member West Indies squad for the World T20, Narine opted out to further work on his remodelled action. Narine visited the ICC-accredited testing centre on March 28, and on Thursday, was given a clearance by the ICC. So he is a freebird once again, but is likely to take time to settle down.

Coaches

Jacques Kallis (head coach), Simon Katich (assistant coach), Wasim Akram (bowling consultant), Andrew Leipus (physio), Adrian le Roux (trainer)

Quote

“I suppose it is an advantage going into coaching soon after retirement. The game has changed. For the last couple of years, it has jumped up a level… It’s nice to be part of the modern-day game as I need to see what works and what doesn’t.”
Jacques Kallis talks about his first ever coaching assignment as the head coach of Knight Riders.

Nagraj Gollapudi is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo

© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.


Source: ESPN Crickinfo

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