Sunday, April 21: As the KKR innings extends into the latter stages, the camera pans to the dugout, and zooms in on a man sitting there, padded up, massive arms resting on tree-trunk legs, hooded eyes in a stony face staring straight ahead into nothingness.
It was the start of the 13th over of the KKR innings.
In that over, Rinku Singh and Chris Lynn scored four runs, and played out three dot balls. In the next, there were four singles, and two dot balls. In the 15th, two dot balls, a boundary, three singles. The KKR run rate, a healthy 8.33 at the start of the 11th over, was down to 7.7 at the end of 15. In those 30 deliveries, there were two fours, one six and nine - NINE - dot balls. And there was Andre Russell, sitting in the dugout, his flat, expressionless eyes staring straight ahead.
At the end of the previous KKR game, against RCB on April 19 when KKR fell short chasing 213, Russell made the case for himself: He said he wanted to bat at four. He said he could make the difference if he went higher up the order. He said, if I go out to bat early, the opposition will have to use its best bowlers against me. He didn’t have to say it, the implication was obvious: He would be the stalking horse; the opposition would use its best bowlers to contain him; this would make it easier for the others particularly at the death, because the opposition’s best bowlers would have been used up.
It was a compelling case - and yet here he was, in the dugout, watching lesser batsmen waste deliveries he could have optimized. KKR ended up with 159/8, and Sunrisers chased it down with fully five overs to spare.
Then, insult to injury. In the post-match conference, KKR captain Dinesh Karthik said Russell had never “complained” about his place in the batting order. And to further rub it in, KKR coach Jacques Kallis said in another presser “In hindsight, we could have sent him a bit earlier.” He also said, “It (batting Russell at four) certainly hasn’t been one of our plans, but if the situation arises it is something we will think of.”
“In hindsight”? Russell actually told you this -- with foresight. “If the situation arises…”? Yeah, well, guess what? The situation has been arising in almost every single game, and the upshot is, KKR which began as one of the main playoff contenders, has lost its last five games – to CSK, then DC, then CSK again, then RCB, and SRH. It now has six losses, five of them on the bounce, and is 6th on the table with a negligible chance of making it to the top four.
There was one final visual to add a touch of poignancy to this sorry story. Later that evening, when KKR was in the field, Dre Russ raced from wide extra cover, along the boundary line, and then flung himself headlong, his left arm at full stretch to pull the ball back just before it hit the ropes. He put in that effort, he saved two, at a time when the game was pretty much over. And then the camera showed him bent double, his left wrist clasped in his right, in visible pain.
He has been carrying this injury to his left wrist - the guiding hand for a right-handed batsman, the one that provides the power for shots through the off - for the last four games. And yet he has put himself on the line every single time, with the bat and on the field. Instead of valuing him as he deserves, his captain, his coach, dither, talk of “hindsight” and “It hasn’t been one of our plans.”
To put it in plain words, if KKR for all its promise finds itself almost out of the competition, it has only itself to blame. And what makes it all worse is that two of the batsmen batting ahead of Russell have been, bluntly said, pathetic.
In an earlier preview, we made the case for KKR’s best batting lineup and explained why. Read that, because it is still valid, and it is what will give KKR its best chance of getting off the losing streak.
To stay with KKR for a moment longer, and to continue the theme of misused resources, here is a quiz question for you: Which KKR bowler has taken the most wickets this season?
Surprised? Consider this: In eight innings, Russell has bowled a mere 18 overs. Naraine has bowled 28.2 in eight; Chawla 32.3 in 10; Kuldeep 33 in nine; Gurney 16 in five; Prasidh 34 in 9.
Since the team management talks of “plans”, what part of the planning, do you suppose, explains why the bowler with the most wickets, and the best strike rate, has bowled the least number of overs? (Gurney has bowled two less, but he has played three games less. And Lockie Ferguson, who like Gurney has bowled in five innings, has just two wickets at a strike rate of 51.0 and economy rate of 8.75).
Prasidh Krishna is an impressive quick (his top speed this season was 150.2), but, at the top of the attack he is misfiring – and at least one major reason lies in the fact that his impact is blunted by lack of an equal at the other end. So here is a strategy punt: What if KKR opens with Russell and Prasidh, both bowling fourth/fifth stump lines with packed off fields at pace?
This saves Gurney, whose forte is pace off and variations, for the middle and death alongside Piyush, Kuldeep and Narine. An even more logical call would be to drop Kuldeep and bring back Prithvi Raj, who in his one outing bowled three overs for 29 runs and one wicket.
KKR, with just 8 points, and with four to play against Royals (April 25), Mumbai Indians (April 28 at home), KXIP (May 3, away) and Mumbai Indians (May 5, away), needs to win all four to stand a chance of qualifying, and none of these are easy assignments. The combination of Karthik and Kallis -- conservative captain and ultra-conservative coach - holds the key; KKR will win or lose not on the ground, but in the team meeting.
The reason this preview focuses inordinately on KKR is because the Royals are effectively out of playoff contention with just six points from 10 games. Here on, the Royals can at best be of nuisance value, pulling off wins against teams in contention to spoil their chances. Upcoming games, after this one, are against SRH which is placed number four on the table at this point; against RCB, a game where no one cares who wins; and against Delhi Capitals, currently number two on the table.
And yet, the Royals present a few interesting talking points - and the first of those relates to Ajinkya Rahane. We characterize some knocks as “captain’s innings” - the other day, Jinx played a “deposed captain’s innings” that, was brilliant to watch. The question is, why was a batsman with such skill performing so below par?
The captain’s armband is a little bit of cloth, weighing about an ounce, but its metaphorical weight can be immense on someone like Rahane. He figures that Jos Buttler and Sanju Samson are strokeplayers who run the risk of cheap dismissal, and thus as the responsible adult, he has to be the one playing within himself, batting deep, anchoring his side.
Problem is, if that is how he saw his role, then he shouldn’t have been opening, since the powerplays can’t be capitalized on by someone looking to conserve his wicket. Now that Smith is both captain and anchor, Rahane’s mind is freed - and it shows.
One more word in passing about Rahane. He underperforms, right? Not a T20 player. A marginal ODI player at best, yes? So here are some numbers: with 318 runs at a strike rate of 140.7, Rahane ranks 14th in the list of batsmen with best strike rates this season. He is one place below David Warner (574 runs at 146.05).
Ranked below Rahane are the likes of Mayank Agarwal, David Miller, Quinton de Kock, Shikhar Dhawan, MS Dhoni… and, ten places below Rahane, a certain Virat Kohli (387 runs at 133.91). Significantly, in the list of those striking at less than his rate, there are three openers: de Kock, Dhawan and Kohli. And, PS, Steve Smith’s strike rate is 116.6.
Just a little pointer to how prejudice and bias can color perception, and this in turn can lead to wrong valuations.
Since this preview has been devoted to underused resources, here is one final point:
Royals has an ordinary strike rate in the power plays - not the worst, which is KXIP (45.1), but way behind the leaders (CSK, 19.8 and SRH, 25.7). In the middle phase, the Royals do better than KKR - but are still way behind the best in class, which is Delhi Capitals (a wicket every 23.7 balls and Mumbai, a wicket every 24.5 balls).
How do you address this problem? An out of the box suggestion: Open with Jofra Archer (who is among the best in this tournament, so that is a no-brainer) and Ben Stokes.
No, really - Ben Stokes is the Royals’ version of Russell. He has thus far taken six wickets; his strike rate (16.83) is even better than Archer’s (21.27) and he ranks 12th among all bowlers this season (ahead of, for example, the likes of Deepak Chahar, Jasprit Bumrah, Ravi Ashwin and other far more lauded bowlers).
The problem is he is being used sparingly (in 8 matches, he only bowled in six innings; he has sent down a total of 16.5 overs) against say 28.2 overs by Unadkat, whose strike rate is 28.33, and Dhawal Kulkarni, who in his 35 overs strikes at 35.00. And even the few overs Stokes has bowled has been in the middle, where he is used as a filler, a defensive option. And yet, as pointed out, he has the best strike rate among all Royals bowler, and at 150.09, he is next only to Archer (fastest this season 152.6) in terms of pace.
In the last game, RR used Stuart Binny to open - and with all due respect, he is the kind of bowler you want in the nets so you can hit a few. A Stokes-Archer combo opening the bowling, looking for wickets in at least four of the first six overs - could Royals do better than that?
Interesting, overall, that both teams playing this game are losing it on the drawing board, before losing it on the field of play.