Match 35: KKR vs RCB, April 19, Kolkata
Nitish Rana fell to Yuzvendra
Chahal in the 16th over. KKR, chasing 206, needed 68 off 26 balls. Non-striker
and KKR captain Dinesh Karthik walked up to the new man in and said, be
careful, watch a few balls, get set.
The new batsman watched. And waited, for five balls in course of which he managed one run while his partner hit a four and a six and then got out. The ask then: 53 from 18.
Mohammed Siraj began the 18th with two dot balls to Russell. The sixth ball – a beamer – was smoked over mid-wicket. Siraj, was waved off by the umpire for having bowled a second beamer after an earlier one had drawn a warning. Marcus Stoinis took the ball to complete the over. His first ball, the third of the 18th, was smacked over long on; the next disappeared over long off. And just like that, the ask was down to 30 off 12.
“I am always confident,” said Andre Russell, the author of the mayhem, in the post-match chat. “I was watching on the telly, and I wasn’t thinking too much. We needed to get 68 from 28 balls, and that doesn’t happen every day. We just had to put our bodies on the line… Once I am there, I know anything’s possible…”
The Bangalore crowd, in celebratory mood till then thanks to Virat Kohli (84 off 49) and AB de Villiers (63 off 32) powering the home side to a seemingly unbeatable 205/3, watched in stunned silence as the “impossible” became a walk in the park.
Death over specialist Tim Southee came on for the 19th. Shubhman Gill smartly took a single off the first ball, and Dre Russ took over: Six over long on. Six over backward point. Six over deep mid-wicket. Four to fine leg. Six straight back over the bowler’s head. Five shots spanning a 320 degree arc; 29 runs in the over. Russell 48 off 13 with seven sixes – one more than Kohli and AB combined. Game over.
How does anyone recover from something like that? It was Sonny Liston flooring Floyd Patterson with one punch; Usain Bolt setting a sprint world record while glancing over his shoulder; Carlos Brathwaite smoking four successive sixes off Ben Stokes to win a T20 World Cup. It was a feral, ferocious, unbridled display of power, touch, timing harnessed by a supreme athlete.
Post-match, Kohli blamed his bowlers, his batsmen. “If we can’t defend 75 in the last four overs… If we had got 20-25 more…” You listened to him, and you thought, well, what if? If you had got 20 more, Russell would have smacked four more sixes. Big deal. Because it was that kind of night when “anything is possible”.
On Friday 19th, RCB takes on Kolkata at the Eden Gardens with the shadow of that game looming over it; knowing that it has not won any of five encounters between the two sides dating back to 2017; knowing also that with just two points from eight matches, it is out of contention for the playoffs and has, as commentators are fond of saying, “nothing to play for but pride”.
KKR, on the other hand, is still in with a chance – eight points from eight games puts it at 6th place on the points table; SRH, KXIP, MI and DC are all ahead with 10 points. Punjab, the fourth placed team, has played one extra game and therefore, if KKR can do well in the remaining six matches, it can live up to pre-season billing and make the playoffs.
A few key points are best made graphically. First:
Compared to last year, KKR is scoring less, and losing more wickets, in the powerplay. Which has crucial implications, which we will get to in a bit.
Second: In terms of the ground, Gardens has been on the high-scoring side. Of four games played at the venue so far, scores batting first have been 181/3; 218/4; 178/7 and 161/8. On three occasions, these scores have been chased down (And on the fourth, KXIP chasing 219 managed 190/4). Inference: The side batting first will need to think in terms of 180-190 as par.
In terms of bowling, both teams have shown deterioration this season. When it comes to powerplay, KKR is striking at a far better rate than in 2018; against that, RCB’s ability to take wickets in the first six overs has hit rock bottom.
Against that, in the middle phase KKR’s striking ability has deteriorated dramatically between last season and this; RCB – thanks largely to Chahal – has actually improved over the previous year.
In terms of ground-specific peculiarities, the one point that jumps out is that wrist-spinners generally struggle. See below:
The Russell conundrum
If RCB is as low, performance-wise and mentally, as it is possible for a team to get, KKR is in little better shape. Three of its four defeats have come in its last three games: On April 9 it managed a mere 108 for 9 against hosts CSK and lost with 16 balls to spare; on the 12th it failed to defend 178/7 at home against Delhi Capitals; and on the 14th it failed to defend 161/8 against Chennai at the Gardens.
In the sequence above lies the key to why KKR, despite being title contenders on paper, are struggling: It has explosive openers in Chris Lynn and Sunil Narine; and it has the best power-player, by a distance, this season. In between, there is a good blend of experience (Uthappa and Kartik) and youth (Rana, Gill).
And yet, with that line up, KKR in three successive games failed to put up enough runs to defend – and it is not because it has a popgun attack. Prasidh Krishna is a talent so marked that he could make an India lineup; in Harry Gurney they have a bowler capable of intelligent death bowling alongside Dre Russell; and spinners Piyush Chawla, Sunil Narine and Kuldeep Yadav have sufficient nous to hold down the middle phase.
The key lies in KKR’s batting order – and the place to start with is Dre Russ. In seven innings, he has 312 runs off 146 balls, striking at an incredible 213.6 – and he has been not out thrice.
The game most indicative of how Russell is misused is the one on April 9, versus CSK at Chennai, on a wicket where no other batsman on either side could strike with any fluency (CSK’s Faf du Plessis, the second best on the night, hit 43 off 45 balls at 95.5).
KKR’s Lynn, Naraine, Uthappa, Rana, Karthik and Gill batted ahead of Russell; only two of those reached double figures (Karthik hit a painful 19 off 21 balls to be second top scorer). The entire KKR line up scored 5 fours; Russell alone had five fours and three sixes. The team score was 108/9 in 120 deliveries; of these Russell scored 50 off 44 and there were four extras. And Russell was unbeaten – in other words, his potential on a wicket where every run was gold was underutilised.
The point: You need Russell padded up by the end of the 10th over, 12th latest, and ready to go the minute the next wicket falls, irrespective of who else you have in the hut.
Batting Order or Disorder?
At a post-match press conference the other night, KKR skipper Dinesh Karthik said: “Look, we’ve made it clear to Shubman that, as and when opportunities arise, he will be sent up the order… Question is whether we can bat Shubman at No. 3 or No. 4. Well, Robin Uthappa and Nitish Rana have won us matches from those positions and, again, it’s a matter of showing faith. India is obsessed with novelties, and even I like novelties, but I have to look at Knight Riders as a whole and not just one bright kid on the block...”
Yes, well, we have a chart, and some thoughts, for Karthik. First, the strike rates of KKR’s top six:
Related thoughts: Narine is a pinch hitter – if he bats past the powerplay, it is a bonus. Lynn is ugly, but effective. He had a slow start to the tournament (37 runs in 39 balls in his first three innings), but he has found his bearings and is batting big and deep – his last three innings produced 175 runs in just 114 balls.
So the first question is, who bats at three, and is Uthappa really the best choice when the requirement is to maintain momentum generated by the opening combo? Uthappa strikes at 128.6 (211 off 164) and is slow off the blocks – which means that at the fall of the first wicket, the opposition bowlers have a period where they are not under pressure.
Against that, Nitish Rana (201 off 139) goes at 144.6, despite being unsettled in the order (He has batted as opener, as four, as five…). Fact: Rana currently has the 15th best strike rate this season; the one immediately above him, at 14th rank, is a certain David Warner (145.16). And Uthappa is ranked 28 – even Ajinkya Rahane at 22 is higher than him. Rana at three looks a no-brainer, really – it gives KKR a top three all striking in excess of 140.
So who is number four? This might sound counter-intuitive, but I’d argue for Shubhman Gill. The talented teen has thus far scored a mere 120 runs off 99 balls at 121.2 – but that is because of how low he bats. The only time he was given space was against Delhi on April 12, when he opened at the Gardens and top-scored with 65 off just 39 despite losing partner Joe Denly off the first ball of the innings. In that game, Uthappa made 28 off 30 and Dinesh Kartik managed two off three.
I could go on, but the point is this: KKR’s biggest problem this season is the inability to put enough on the board for its bowlers to defend (three of its four losses came batting first; the fourth was the famous super over when Kagiso Rabada produced the miracle ball against Dre Russ).
To fix this problem, it needs to rethink its batting line-up, and go with Narine, Lynn, Rana, Gill, Russell in that order – and it needs to give its two young Indian stars the license, the freedom, to play their natural game.
In such a line up, Uthappa has to float -- if wickets fall in a heap at the top, he comes in to steady the ship and take the game into the second half; if at least three of the top four are on song, he sits out till after Russell.
A T20 team is not a government bureaucracy – it is not about seniority, but efficiency. And very clearly, as pointed out earlier, KKR has been inefficient in putting sufficient runs on the board to defend.
As for Kartik, captain or no captain, if he bats in the top five on his current form, he does his team a big disservice (which raises the question of why he is in the World Cup squad, but that is a different story for a different day).
You notice I didn’t have anything to say about RCB’s tactics, right? Because what is the point? The team is now “playing for pride” – and who knows at what position “pride” bats, in a line-up where its best batsman, Virat Kohli, ranks 33rd in the strike rate charts (124.6)?
For what it is worth, RCB should consider moving Moeen to the opening slot to do what Narine does for KKR – Kohli is way too vulnerable to the moving, lifting new ball; teams have figured out that it is profitable to attack him outside off with slips in place. And it needs to stop experimenting with Akshdeep Nath, and bring back Hetmeyer.
All that said, the only thing at stake in this game is: Can KKR win, and keep its playoff hopes afloat? And here is the rider: Approximately 40 hours before the game, when this is being written, Dre Russ is not certain to play (Carlos Brathwaite is the logical replacement, but even at his best, he is no Russell).
KKR: Chris Lynn, Sunil Narine, Robin Uthappa, Nitish Rana, Dinesh Karthik, Shubhman Gill, Andre Russell, Piyush Chawla, Harry Gurney, Prasidh Krishna
RCB: Virat Kohli, Parthiv Patel, AB de Villiers, Moeen Ali, Shimron Hetmyer, Navdeep Saini, Yuzvendra Chahal, Umesh Yadav, Mohammad Siraj, Marcus Stoinis, Pawan Negi