From wooden-spoon contenders to Dark Horses: how KKR turned their season around

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safari
10 Oct 2021 | 01:49 PM
authorAnirudh Suresh

From wooden-spoon contenders to Dark Horses: how KKR turned their season around

Written off after their dismal showing in the first leg, the Knight Riders have staged a comeback for the ages

Note: This article was originally published on October 10, prior to the Eliminator. All the numbers in the article are as of October 10, 2021, relevant only to the group stages.

Two wins in seven matches, injury woes, form concerns, major absentees and a coach who had seemingly gotten frustrated with a lot of his players - had KKR finished bottom of the league in IPL 2021, the result would have surprised none. A full-blown implosion was a stone’s throw away in May, and if not for the break induced by the pandemic, heads might have rolled. Heading into the second half, people did not take them seriously for a good reason. 

Which is precisely why this turnaround they’ve managed is nothing short of astonishing. It is the sort of upswing that is mind-numbing, for KKR had no right to become this good, literally out of nowhere. In the span of weeks they’ve gone from the side everyone wanted to face to the team no one wants to come up against. It is a 180-degree turn for the ages. 

But how did it happen, and why should the Knight Riders now be considered genuine Dark Horses for the title?

Putting faith and trust in the young Indian quartet, and defining their roles 

Since the start of last season, KKR have had one of the best young Indian batting cores at their disposal, yet, until the second half of this season, the franchise simply did not get the best out of the individuals. The primary reason being the role definitions just weren’t clear.

The Shubman Gill-Nitish Rana opening partnership in the first half epitomized the problem. Both batters felt the need to bat through and anchor the innings, and it eventually resulted in the team being too conservative up-front. The tameness even led to head coach Brendon McCullum letting out the infamous 'If you can't change a man, change the man’ sentence.

To solve the problem, KKR introduced Venkatesh Iyer up top and pushed Rana down the order and well the rest, as they say, is history.

Iyer’s explosion provided the side with the impetus up top it was missing, and the move ended up having a positive domino effect. Gill felt comfortable in his own skin while Rana ended up not just stabilizing the No.4 position but making it his own. Meanwhile Rahul Tripathi continued batting at No.3 with complete intent and no fear, only this time not having to worry about the batters around him. 

Stability in the top-four and clear role-definition also emboldened the batters to bat with more freedom, and this resulted in individuals’ performance skyrocketing.


The output of KKR’s top-four in the first and second half has been day and night.

This solidity provided by the young Indian core has set a much-needed strong base for the side, something it simply did not have in the first half. It has also eased the burden off the middle and lower-order, which has not yet fired. 

The resurgence of Sunil Narine and the subsequent bowling domination

It is no secret that spin is the Knight Riders’ single biggest weapon; it is a tool that has played an integral part in the side qualifying for the playoffs. But while understandably all the focus has been on the form of Varun Chakravarthy, who is probably now the number one spinner in India, something that has gone under the radar has been the sensational resurgence of Sunil Narine, who has been bowling as well as he has in years. 

Chakravarthy has been unplayable for two seasons running, but in IPL 2020 he got little to no support from his partner, Narine. That was also the case in the first half of this season in India. But come the second half, the KKR mystery spinners have tag-teamed and mauled batting units. 


And a big reason for the same has been the drastic rise in the efficiency of Narine.

Since restart, Narine has taken 7 wickets at a terrific economy rate of 6.3. Not only is it a marked improvement on his numbers from the first half, but, in the UAE leg, only two spinners - Chahal and Chakravarthy - have taken more wickets than him at a better ER.  


Outside the powerplay (Overs 7-20), Narine has an ER of 5.3, which is the best for any bowler who has bowled a minimum of 20 overs in the phase.

The resurgence of the West Indian has given Morgan two trump cards to play with, but most importantly it has turned KKR into a lethal bowling unit. Since restart, KKR have been the best bowling unit in this UAE leg: they’ve boasted the best average and SR, and have quite remarkably taken 12 more wickets than any other side. 


And this dominance and effectiveness with the ball has been architected by their spinners, who have taken up the burden of carrying the bowling unit. And they have delivered big time.

For years Narine needed to contribute with the bat to stay relevant in the KKR starting XI, but that is no longer the case. He has only faced 14 balls in this UAE leg yet here he is, back to being one of the first picks in the XI. As someone who has been the heart and soul of the franchise for a decade, it is only fitting that his own resurgence has directly resulted in his side getting rejuvenated.

Individuals rising up to the occasion in the absence of big names

Pat Cummins was a rare silver lining for KKR in the first half, and so the news of him pulling out of the second leg gave all the more reason to be pessimistic. 

The Knight Riders, after a bright start to the second leg, also lost Andre Russell - their premier finisher and death bowler - just two games into restart, and that was also a devastating blow, especially given they needed to be near-perfect to qualify. Worse, after the absence of Cummins and the injury to Russell, Morgan also lost his number one quick, Lockie Ferguson, during a critical phase. 

Had KKR not qualified, they would have had plenty of valid excuses to cite.

Yet none of these injuries or absences have hindered the side. Those who have filled-in have stepped up and risen to the occasion to make the side devoid of any weak-links. 

In the absence of Cummins, Ferguson has led the pace unit and done it with panache. Prior to the knock he suffered against Delhi, the Kiwi picked up 7 wickets in 4 matches and delivered the goods for KKR everytime the side needed him to. Then on his comeback against the Royals, the speedster returned in style with figures of 3/18.

The Knight Riders lost Russell at an awkward time, and while initially the death-specialist role was filled by Venkatesh Iyer rather effectively, the introduction of Shakib Al Hasan and Shivam Mavi turned out to be game-changers. 

While Shakib has already won matches for the side with the ball, Mavi has ensured that KKR, in the absence of Russell, have a second strike seamer who can get the job done at any phase in the game. 

Tim Southee was the only replacement who was underwhelming, but even he played a hand in the Knight Riders’ victory over the Sunrisers. 

McCullum, prior to the second leg, stressed on the need for his side to show ‘character’, and that’s precisely what they’ve done, notwithstanding the individuals at their disposal. 

Why the Knight Riders are Dark Horses for the title 

In the playoffs for the first time in three years, KKR have a realistic chance of winning the title. And there are plenty of reasons for the other sides to be wary of the Knight Riders’ threat.

For one, KKR are the only side with nothing to lose. DC and CSK have had better campaigns, but the two sides have some amount of mental baggage. 

CSK and Dhoni would want one last title before this bunch is broken up in the mega auction next year, while DC would not be wanting to go trophyless after dominating the group stages for two straight seasons.

In contrast, there is nothing at stake for KKR, for whom this final four is a bonus. They could, therefore, play with the same fearlessness they showcased in the group stages. 

Then there is the psychological edge, with KKR having beaten two of the other three playoff teams in the group stage in the second leg, including their opponents in the Eliminator and Qualifier 2.  They also came agonizingly close to beating CSK, hence Morgan and McCullum will know that they will be coming up against three sides who are beatable. 

Finally there are the conditions. KKR were the most successful side in the group stages of the UAE leg, and they will be playing Qualifier 2 at Sharjah, a venue where they have a 100% record this season. 

Having adjusted to the UAE conditions far better than any other team, with both bat and ball, there is no reason why the Knight Riders cannot go on a three-match winning streak in the playoffs and land their third Indian Premier League title. 

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Indian Premier League, 2021Kolkata Knight RidersEoin MorganBrendon McCullumSunil NarineVarun ChakravarthyVenkatesh IyerShakib Al HasanShubman GillRahul TripathiNitish Rana

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