Saturday, June 2, 2012

The KKR Story: Their Road map to IPL Triumph

In most of the action-revenge dramas which comes out of Bollywood, it is the most common theme to see the hero going through pain, heartbreak and as much distress as possible (parents getting killed, sister getting raped, friends betraying and so on) before coming as triumphed after an intense battle with the villain.
For last 5 years Kolkata Knight Riders was the team with mostly filmy mashala as two of its owners are Bollywood stars and despite not performing up to the mark there was no lack glamour, money and hype around this team. But this year the way they have turned the table and their transition from a loser and subject to infinite jokes in Facebook and real life to a deservingly champion team is nothing short of a film script!
 All the controversies and misfortune of previous seasons, from John Buchanan’s multiple captaincy theory to Fake IPL blogger to the decision of not picking Sourav Ganguly in 2011 auction the list of controversies is as big as the number of sixes scored by Chris Gayle, add to it the number of player unavailability and close last ball losses made KKR the weeping boys of first 3 IPL. Things started to change in 2011 but still some parts were missing. But in those 7 weeks of April-May 2012, along with the countless hours of training and planning before that KKR finally did what their captain Gautam Gambhir described as ‘Mission Accomplish’.
What I am trying to do here is to rewind some may be small but key milestones in their journey to 27th May when sometime close to midnight, Manoj Tiwari’s two consecutive pull shots give them their maiden IPL trophy.

Knight Riders started their campaign with two losses and when they came to Bangalore to play Royal Challengers, they knew that they have to turn their fortunes pretty soon, otherwise another season would pass with them not seriously challenging for the title.
KKR, put into bat, started strongly and reached 125 for 1 in the 14th over. A score around 180 looked quite possible but a middle order collapse where 7 of their batsmen got out for single digit scores resulted them scoring just 40 runs in last 40 deliveries of the innings and end up scoring 165.
With the Chinnaswami batting condition and the RCB’s batting line up in mind, 165 was gettable but what follows was the first of many great team bowling performance by KKR, where every bowler played their part efficiently. Where Kallis gave KKR a great start by removing both the openers of RCB including the super dangerous Gayle and Shakib took care of the death overs, it was the middle overs of Laxmipati Balaji, which makes the difference. Balaji bowled 4 overs in a trot (6th, 8th, 10th and 12th) and took one wicket in each of his 4 overs to dent RCB’s chase. The one which took care of AB De Villiers was the special one; it was bowled with an in-swinging angle and got straightened after pitching to take the off stump of the talented South African.
The win showed the first signs of KKR’s class against teams with such big names.

When KKR bought Sunil Narine after intense bidding for $700,000, which was 14 times his base price, in the 2012 IPL auctions, most of the headlines had words like, surprize, unexpected and gamble. Narine impressed once and all in the 2011 Champions Trophy while playing for T&T including his spell against CSK where he spellbound players like Suresh Raina and MS Dhoni with his tricks. An off spinner with a high arm action and plenty of varities, Narine looked to be a smart purchase by Kolkata.
But come IPL, it turned out to be the buy of the season, when Narine ended the tournament with 24 wickets at an average of 13.50 and economy rate of 5.47. He was the second highest wicket taker and the player of the series.
Kolkata did not play Narine in their first match against Delhi. He played the second and the third match, both against Royals with moderate success to be dropped in the 4th match against the Royal Challengers. In the fifth match in home, KKR decided to play Narine against KXIP and in his comeback, Narine produced a wonderful display of spin bowling. Coming to bowl as early as third over to take the wicket of Adam Gilchrist, one of the greats of the game, and then taken care of the death overs by taking 3 wickets in 18th and 20th over, Narine was unplayble. 14 of his 24 deliveries were dot balls and his analysis 19 for 5 was as impressive as you can get in a T-20 match. 
Kolkata could not pull off the win by messing up their chase in last two overs, but the buzz about Sunil Narine’s mystery started to take momentum which was in show for almost all of the remaining matches of Kolkata.

Chennai Super Kings are the most successful and consistent side in first five years of IPL. Not only they were the champions of last two years, they never finished the tournament without being in Top Four in the points table. Captained by MS Dhoni and consisting of players like Michel Hussey, Albie Morkel, Suresh Raina and Ravi Ashwin, CSK is the team to beat in IPL.
KKR had a poor 2-5 win-loss ratio against them and never won a match in their fortress M. A. Chidambaram Stadium. But when the bowling unit restricted the Super Kings for 139, a required rate of just 7 runs per over looked manageable. KKR lost McCullum early but like many occasions in last two years, Gambhir and Kallis steadied the ship and added 70 runs in the second wicket with a run rate, at per of the require rate. But few overs later when Gambhir got out in the first ball of the 19th over KKR still required 16 of 11 balls. Things were getting tight when Yusuf Pathan was joined by Debabrata Das, an interesting little player who is playing in IPL since its very first edition without playing even a single first class match. He is a fearless heater who had only few innings of note in the previous IPL seasons. He started with converting a full toss on his pads to a four and KKR entered Ashwin’s last over requiring six for win.
Pathan cut the first ball to deep point for two, the second was a dot ball and when Pathan got out trying to slog sweep the third ball of the over, pressure came on KKR. And that’s when Das showed his metal by hitting the next delivery of Ashwin through the mid-wicket boundary to give KKR an important win. It not only strengthens their position in the points table, the win over the current champions also gave them lots of self-belief which they carried forward in the next games.
Das only faced 4 balls to get those 11 runs, but that thumping boundary was a real key moment in Knight Rider’s IPL journey. Gautam Gambhir, who by that time had shown significant glimpse of his captaincy skill, recognized the effort and was ready to give away his ‘Man-of-the-match’ award to Das.

Sourav Ganguly may be one of the most controversial characters of world cricket but Kolkata is his land and for most of Kolkatans like me he can’t do any wrong. Hence, during the failure of first 3 seasons Kolkata was unhappy but never even thought that there could be a team from Kolkata without Sourav. Then came the IPL auction of 2011 and Sourav was not picked by any of the franchise, not even by Kolkata. As expected huge uproar was followed and conspiracy theories were put into place. But a big part of Kolkata became more heart broken as their beloved Dada was not any more part of Kolkata Knight Riders. At the beginning of 4th season, KKR experienced empty stands in their home matches in Eden gardens but slowly the public turned back towards the team and Home matches again become well attendant.
In the meantime Ganguly was also picked by Pune Warriors as their key bowler Ashish Nehra was injured and Sourav played the second half of IPL-4 with moderate success. Came IPL season 5 and Sourav was given the captaincy role as Yuvraj Singh was out recovering from his cancer treatment.
Warriors started strongly and even were at the top of the standings at one point thanks to win over big teams like CSK and DD but their form was on the decline and they came to Kolkata with 4 consecutive losses. 
No one knew how Kolkata would behave, are they going to root for their team or are they going to support their man. The opinions were divided and may be slightly tending towards the man. Specially with KKR in a strong position people may had more sympathy towards Pune in the match which was termed as ‘Dada vs Khan’, pointing towards KKR’s one of the owners Shah Rukh Khan.
But, as always Gambhir was completely away from all these hype and tension of the big match. He won the toss and started with a blistering pace to take KKR to 68 runs in the powerplays at a run rate above 11. He played another little gem to score 56 of 36 and took KKR to 113 in the 13th over. But his departure was again followed by mediocre batting by the middle order and they end their innings with 150 on the board, at least 20 short of what to be expected after that opening stand.
If KKR’s middle order batting failure was a regular thing another regular sight was to see Kolkata bowling attack performing considerably well to put a up a great show. Young Marchant De Lange came to the party and gave Knight Riders a great start by removing big guns like Michel Clarke and Robin Uthappa in his first two overs. And when Narine trapped Steven Smith, Pune’s most dangerous batsman in the 9th over, Pune was reeling at 55 for 5. 
In his home ground, Sourav came at number 7 and built a partnership with Angelo Mathews , who suddenly gave Pune a glimmer of hope with 3 consecutive sixes of Yusuf Pathan but the required rate was increasing and when Ganguly got caught at deep mid-wicket, trying to hit Rajat Bhatia for a six, Pune needed 23 of 14. And with Narine bowling the 19th over for just 4 runs, even Mathews could not get the 18 runs required in the last over and KKR won by 7 runs.
The fans who were supporting Pune in the beginning were found to shout at top of their voice for KKR after a good well-fought T-20 match. KKR again found his home among their most passionate of fans.

Going back to the film analogy, which I gave at the beginning of this article, for KKR supporters Mumbai Indians is that terrifying villain whom they hate the most. Not only KKR had a 1-7 IPL win-loss ratio before this year’s IPL, this is the team who gave KKR some of its most humiliating and heart breaking defeats. From their lowest score of 67 in the first IPL to the Rayadu’s last ball six in IPL-4, it was only the story of failure and despair. Even in the home match in the Eden Gardens MI won quite comfortably thanks to Rohit Sharma’s century.
When Knight Riders went to Mumbai to play the return leg, they knew a win is absolute necessary to keep their chance of finishing in top two alive. Finishing in top two was important as that would give them two chances in the knockouts to reach the final.
Put into bat, KKR started badly, RP Singh’s double strike made them tottering at 6 for 2, and at 96 for 6 in the 16th over, another familiar loss was well on cards. KKR recovered somewhat to add 40 runs in last 4 overs to reach 140 and had at least something for their bowlers to bowl at. But as it turned out, it was more than enough for KKR bowlers to restrict MI batsmen.
Gibbs scored a painstaking 13 of 24 balls to leave MI scoring only 26 runs in the powerplays. Tendulkar kept batting till the eleventh over and his battle against Narine was fascinating to see. But the last delivery of the 11th over was a vicious off break from Narine which hit Tendulkar on thigh and then crashed on to off stump. Once he was gone, KKR bowlers ran through the MI batting line up to bowl them out for 108. Narine finished with 15 for 4 and another Man-of-the-match award.
The Mumbai Indians were also humbled in their home ground and KKR started looking really dominating and a well-balanced unit at this point.

72 group matches are completed and here are they, two most dangerous and consistent teams of IPL-5 met in the first qualifier for a place in the final. The venue was Subrata Roy Sahara Stadium in Pune where the pitch was slow, low and one of the most difficult ones to bat on. Despite the slow nature of the pitch Delhi continued to go with their strategy of Four-pace bowling attack with Yadav, Aaron, Pathan and Morne Morkel, who was IPL’s highest wicket taker. Like Delhi, KKR also go with their strength, the spin bowling attack consists of Narine, Abdulla and Shakib with Yusuf as another potential spin bowling option.
Gautam Gambhir won a very important toss and decided to bat first. KKR started briskly but lost the momentum in the middle overs to lose 3 wickets for 19 runs and at the end of 16th over KKR were 106 for 4, looking at a potential score close to 140. 
That’s when Laxmi Ratan Shukla Waled out of KKR dug out. Laxmi Shukla is another fringe player for KKR, he had experience of first class cricket for more than 12 years and once used to be considered as a potential India all-rounder, but he never got his proper chance and never fulfilled his aspirations. Shukla also played for KKR in all 5 seasons with limited opportunities and even considered moving to Pune Warriors before beginning of the season. KKR team management had different plans and convinced him not to leave.
Shukla joined Yusuf Pathan, who has a different career graph but had a relatively quiet, non-significant IPL and people did raise a question over his price tag of $2.1 million. But somehow both these all-rounders decided to play their most significant parts in IPL 5 at that night and what followed was madness when these two amassed 56 runs in last four overs. There was a method in their madness as they scored 9, 11, 15 and 21 runs in those 4 overs respectively and scored runs through clean hitting in the gaps or shots out of the ground than mistimed edges and stricky boundaries. KKR ended with respectable 162 for 4 in their 20 overs.
Daredevils had a strong batting line up with two explosive batsmen at the top in David Warner and Virendra Sehwag. They also had lots of class in the middle order in Mahela Jayawardene and Ross Taylor. But as many a times this season, all the KKR bowlers played their part and everyone ended with at least one wicket behind their name. 
Some of the Delhi’s strategy was baffling, specially sending Taylor at number seven after Rao and Negi lacks any sense. But the Knight Riders were not complaining. They have reached their maiden IPL final in the fifth attempt.

So after 4 years of pain, embarrassment and heart break here are the Knight Riders, playing their most important match against the reigning champions Chennai Supper Kings in their home ground in Chennai. It can’t get bigger than this. 
But before that KKR had to deal with the massive blow of Balaji getting unfit for the final. Not Only Balaji was one of the meanest of KKR bowlers with an economy rate of 5.40, his absence would also mean that the team balance is disturbed and Kolkata needed to bring in Brett Lee by keeping one of their foreign players from last match out. Narine and Kallis are two players who were impossible to be dropped, so the choice was between McCullum and Shakib, either drop Shakib and play Das, by which KKR would lose one bowling option or drop McCullum to include Manvinder Bisla who played his last match 15 days ago. The recent strong showing of Shakib, especially with the ball, helped him to get the preference over McCullum and hence Bisla got a chance to play and keep wickets in KKR’s most important match of the season.
Super Kings had an indifferent IPL in 2012. In fact, compared to their high standards this season they performed pretty mediocre during the group stages and they only qualified for the play offs because some other teams, most notably Bangalore Royal Challengers threw their chance to qualify by losing their last matches. A devastating spell by Dale Steyn and some poor shot selection by RCB batsmen meant CSK held to its 4th position in the points table and qualified for the play offs.
And like any strong team, CSK got back to his best form in the knock outs, suddenly their batsmen started scoring runs and spinners started getting turns. They thrashed Mumbai and Delhi quite comfortably to reach their 4th final in IPL’s 5 year history. Everyone realized that KKR had a tough task in hand, facing the rampant Super Kings in their home of M.A. Chidambaram stadium. But KKR was silently confident, especially after their win in that venue during the group phase of the league.
MS Dhoni won the toss and while batting first CSK displayed an imposing batting display, only 4 batsmen were required. Mike Hussey and Murali Vijay gave them a good start before Suresh Raina, the most successful batsman in IPL history thumped 73 runs at a strike rate above 192. CSK ended their innings with 190 runs in board, much higher than the per score for big finals like this. KKR bowlers had an off day and none of them could put any control over CSK batsmen. Narine had his most expensive showing of the season and Brett Lee leaked 42 runs in his 4 overs.
KKR’s chase had poorest of starts when they lost their captain, most successful and only consistent batsman in the line-up, Gautam Gambhir in the last ball of the first over with just 3 runs on board. Bisla was joined by the great Jack Kallis and what followed was not in anyone’s wildest dream. With Kallis’ calm presence and solidity, Bisla found a new edge in his game and played a wonderfully free flowing innings and maintain the run rate close to 10, which was required. He scored 89 runs of 48 balls with 8 boundaries and 5 sixes. It was an awesome display of sensible stroke play which caught the entire CSK attack off guard. By the time Bisla got out he brought the equation to 52 runs required of 32 balls. Kallis showed his class to score a gritty 69 of 49. Although he got out with KKR needing 16 of 7 balls which was scored by some innovative and sensible hitting from two Bengal boys (may be from the different side of the border) Shakib Al Hasan and Manoj Tiwari. 
Tiwari later said that, he felt the fielding placement for him was wrong but he took full advantage of that to hit two consecutive fours of Dwayne Bravo though to square leg region. And with the second hit Kolkata Knight Rider’s story was complete. They achieved what they were playing for. They put a lot of sincere hard work and were ecstatic to get their reward. Their emotional story reaches a wonderful and happy ending, just like a successful Bollywood movie.

 The above matches or those specific performances may be some of the key junctions in their journey to the triumph but to me this team’s journey started on 8th and 9th January 2011, in the IPL auction for season 4, when KKR management went with a specific plan. They wanted to get away from previous three years’ failure; they decided to have Gautam Gambhir to be their next captain and went all out for him. They did another major purchase in Yusuf Pathan within next 10 minutes and then throughout the next two days they did smart buys like Kallis, Lee, Shakib, Balaji, Tiwari, Morgan and Ryan Ten Doeschate. It showed the management had a proper plan and did a detailed analysis of their strength and weakness to decide on their requirement. 
To me, that was the day when the first seed of KKR’s 2012 IPL win was harvested.

[As always, a special note of thanks for my two most favorite websites:
i. for providing all the stats, scorecard and photos.
ii. for helping me reliving those great moments]

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