There’s always that one shot of the losing team or player, during a final, that tends to make a neutral poignant for a good few seconds. In today’s case, it came in the very final over of the contest. As Shivam Mavi, on the penultimate ball of the match, with the game already done and dusted, holed out to Deepak Chahar on the boundary line, the camera panned towards KKR head coach Brendon McCullum.
Baz was not quite on the verge of tears, but there was an immeasurable disappointment and sadness on his face. Reality hit him that the fairytale run, which was architected by him, was after all not destined to endure a happy ending. And maybe, deep down, he knew that there was a slim chance that this final could very well go down as his last game as coach of the Knight Riders.
Regardless of whether he manages the franchise next season, though, McCullum should hold his head high. For in the position they found themselves at before restart, KKR had no business being a part of the Grand Finale in Dubai. And as it eventually turned out, they were outplayed by a team that was not only better on the day, but one which simply knows how to win. Certainly, there is no shame in losing to this CSK franchise which, arguably, has the claim to be the best in the competition’s history.
KKR, no doubt, have their reasons to be disappointed. Heading into the final, they’d won four games on the bounce and had mastered the UAE conditions like no other team. The toss went their way too, and having boasted a 100% record in the second leg chasing, they would realistically have seen themselves as favorites. Which is why the 27-run defeat will sting.
But when the dust settles, McCullum will know that his side, if anything, overachieved. For all the while, even during the indomitable victorious run, this was a flawed unit that was being kept together by a method of success that was unsustainable. All the stars needed to align one more time for them to lift the IPL title but in a cruel turn of events, everything, instead, fell apart.
Should we be surprised? If we are to purely go by form, then yes. But the warning signs were always there. As recent as their triumph over Delhi Capitals in Qualifier 2.
All through the second half, up until the final, the Knight Riders had a peculiar way of winning matches: bowl first, restrict opponents to a low score and chase the target down. Prior to the final, they’d implemented this very strategy on six occasions and had a 100% success rate. The two games they lost were incidentally the ones in which they batted first.
By winning the toss in the final and opting to chase, KKR checked the first box. But they were dealt a body blow the moment CSK ended up posting a mammoth total on the board.
While it is true that, prior to the final, KKR had a 100% record chasing, low totals were all they ever chased. Prior to Friday, 156 was the highest total they’d chased in the UAE leg. Their bowling was so efficient that 65% of the match was won in the first 20 overs itself.
What this supreme showing from the bowlers did was mask the flaws in the batting, which was ludicrously top-heavy.
Prior to the final, an astonishing 82.58% of the team’s runs in the second half had been scored by KKR’s top-four batters. The middle and lower-order batters, throughout the second leg, were mere passengers, and their ineptness almost cost the side a place in the final as they came oh-so-close to botching 130-something chases in both the Eliminator and the Qualifier.
CSK posting 192 meant that the only way KKR were going to win the game was if either their top-four had a 10/10 night, or if their lower-order stepped up for the first time in UAE. Neither ended up happening. Even with a fully fit Tripathi, the chase would have been a struggle; the moment they lost him due to injury, the Knight Riders were headed to defeat but for a miracle.
Then there is their imbalanced bowling attack which, in the absence of Russell, is tailor-made for Sharjah and Sharjah only. In the three games heading into the final, KKR had fielded two seamers and three specialist spinners and had gotten away with the same because of the conditions. The sluggish nature of the Sharjah wicket meant that the ball either stuck, turned or bounced inconsistently when the spinners bowled. To their credit, KKR exploited it to the fullest.
But such a ploy was never going to work in Dubai. And it showed as the 11 overs bowled by Narine, Chakravarthy and Shakib ended up costing 97. It was 32 more than what they conceded against RCB in the Eliminator, in which the trio bowled a total of 12 overs.
And as if the ineffectiveness of the spinners wasn’t bad enough, Lockie Ferguson ended up picking the worst ever time to bowl the costliest spell of his IPL career. The Kiwi’s 4 overs cost 56 runs, but the absence of a reliable third seamer - and the lack of purchase for the spinners - meant that Morgan had no option but to bowl Ferguson out even though he was having a nightmare of an outing.
KKR were able to mask Andre Russell’s unavailability in Sharjah but on a flat surface like Dubai, they were never going to be able to field a balanced side in his absence. Bringing an extra seamer - be it Nagarkoti or Prasidh or Southee - would have thinned the batting, while going with Shakib (which they did) would have left them a pacer short.
Perhaps Ben Cutting might have been a decent like-for-like replacement, but it is worth noting that the Aussie has not possessed a cutting-edge about his bowling for a long while. So, in essence, their hands were tied.
Taking all factors into consideration, then, it is no surprise that the Knight Riders came up short; they simply had too many internal obstacles to overcome. And against a side like CSK which is more than the sum of its parts, there is no escaping. Not in a final, at least.
And so, McCullum is justified in being disappointed - but the disappointment should not stem from the fact that his side lost the final.
He should be disappointed that none of his senior batters stepped up at any point in the season; disappointed that his captain consciously refused to take responsibility with the bat till the very last game; disappointed that he was never proactive in trying to solve the team’s middle-order issues and, most importantly, disappointed that he failed to construct a well-balanced squad capable of excelling across conditions.
The runners-up medal McCullum won today is one he should be proud of, but only time will tell if those running the franchise see it as a sign of progress. We will get to know that soon enough, in about two months’ time at the auction table.