Dinesh Karthik, IPL 2018, Kolkata Knight Riders
Dinesh Karthik in KKR practice session © IANS

Kolkata Knight Riders (KKR) win matches and fans, and make a lot of money. There’s glitz, glamour, entertainment and showmanship whenever they take field; and there are two IPL trophies in their cabinet. The franchise borrows attributes from co-owner Shahrukh Khan, and embodies the brand IPL in many ways. 

But KKR can surprise. They do not shy away from tough calls. They did it in 2011 when they had the audacity to risk the brand by replacing their icon Sourav Ganguly. Seven years on, they have moved on from Gautam Gambhir, a man synonymous to the franchise slogan —Korbo, Lorbo, Jeetbo.

Ganguly, Brendon McCullum and Gambhir — the men who have led the Knights till date, are all larger-than-life icons. The transition to Dinesh Karthik is rather interesting. 

KKR were the only side who walked out of the IPL 2018 Auction without a captaincy option (though one can say the same about Kings XI Punjab). The decision to appoint Karthik raised eyebrows at first, but the freakish 8-ball 28 not out in the winning cause of Nidahas Trophy changed perceptions.

Sunil Narine, Andre Russell, Kuldeep Yadav, Robin Uthappa, Chris Lynn and Piyush Chawla are among the key players retained by KKR. However, the change of guard makes KKR a different unit, a smaller one but comprising expensive players.

Year IPL Position Captain
2008 6th Sourav Ganguly
2009 8th Brendon McCullum
2010 6th Sourav Ganguly
2011 4th Gautam Gambhir
2012 Champions Gautam Gambhir
2013 7th Gautam Gambhir
2014 Champions Gautam Gambhir
2015 5th Gautam Gambhir
2016 4th Gautam Gambhir
2017 3rd Gautam Gambhir

KKR fans continue to question the exclusion of Gambhir. There were rumours that Gambhir wanted to end his IPL career at his home, Delhi. But even then, how difficult would it have been for KKR to retain the man who had changed their fortunes after the first three heartbreaking seasons? 

But let us leave that for now, for pressing F5 and moving on is the verdict the management has decided on and that is what it is.

“I think I am at a stage where I can handle it and get the best out of the team,” Karthik told journalists. Having been part of India Under-19 in 2004 World Cup, Karthik made it to the national side in 2004.

A SWOT analysis will tell us more on what to expect.

Strengths:

Quality overseas players: KKR have immense quality in Lynn, Narine and Russell. Mitchell Starc’s injury has opened the doors for Tom Curran, not a very popular name in this region but is a smart limited-overs’ bowler. Son of the late Zimbabwean Kevin, 23-year-old Tom has played 2 Tests, 8 ODIs and 6 T20Is for England. He has been impressive in the shorter formats but will compete for a slot with the seasoned Mitchell Johnson.

Not to forget, Johnson bowled the decisive over for Mumbai Indians last season that gave them the IPL. He maybe an ageing horse with some rustiness, but Johnson was quite economical in the BBL last season, giving away runs at just over 6.

Potent spin-attack and variations: Narine will continue to lead the bowling attack with his incredible variations. Chinaman bowler Kuldeep has grown in reputation and has emerged as a vital cog of Indian bowling in a short span of time. And then there is Chawla, obviously reliable in T20 cricket.

Explosive batting: KKR’s batting has firepower aplenty. Lynn has emerged as one of the hardest strikers of the ball. Expect Narine to partner Lynn at the top. Since the start of last IPL, Narine has maintained a strike rate in excess of 150 in all T20 tournaments. Uthappa can change gears at will, whereas Russell bats at the top gear. Nitish Rana stunned the fraternity with his range of power hitting for Mumbai last season. Then there is the young Shubman Gill, whose average and strike rate are over 100 in U-19 ODIs; two months back, Gill was named Player of the Tournament of the U-19 World Cup. And then there is Karthik himself.

Weakness:

Clouds over key players: Lynn seldom plays a series without breaking down. He missed the PSL due to his shoulder injury and is rushing back to the sport. So is the case with Russell. After serving a yearlong ban, he returned and got injured in the PSL. Much of KKR’s fortunes rest on Russell and there are questions over his fitness. These are key players and can KKR will have to manage their workloads.

Narine’s action: Gambhir had a weapon that Ganguly did not. What turned around things for KKR?

Sunil Narine. Narine’s action came under cloud during PSL. He will be cautious. He was reported during CLT20 2014 and that hurt KKR.

Starc Difference: Starc’s absence is also a psychological blow for the Knight Riders. They had a lot of hopes pined on the lanky Aussie. Stepping into the shoes of one of the best bowlers in the world will surely be a task for young Curran. They lost their pace battery that dismissed RCB for 49 last season to RCB this season (you read it right). Eden Gardens assists pacers, but there are no big names this time in KKR’s pace bowling armoury (if one does not consider Vinay Kumar) to put more pressure on Russell.

IPL 2018: Gautam Gambhir has set high benchmark as KKR captain, says Dinesh Karthik, confident of playoffs berth
IPL 2018: Gautam Gambhir has set high benchmark as KKR captain, says Dinesh Karthik, confident of playoffs berth

Shivam Mavi and Kamlesh Nagarkoti terrorised batsmen in U-19 cricket. However, as bowling coach Heath Streak pointed out, bowling to seasoned internationals is a different kettle.

Replacements: If a Rana or a Gill has an off season, there is a Rinku Singh or Apoorva Wankhade or Ishank Jaggi who can walk in. What happens if they a Karthik or Lynn or Uthappa is down with a niggle?

Opportunities:

Dinesh Karthik: Karthik has been grabbing opportunities of late. In a 14-year long career, Karthik has had far too many in-and-out experiences in the national side. He has done little justice to his talent bundle. Now, at 32, he is making a conscious effort to turn things around. This IPL may make him. Captaincy just opens newer avenues for the Tamil Nadu stalwart.

Trivia: Karthik was the Man of the Match in India’s first T20, and also the last, the final of the Nidahas Trophy. He scored the winning runs on both occasions.

Happy bowlers: Kuldeep, Narine and Chawla can try more variations. Russell can bowl the well-guised bouncers with confidence. Karthik’s arrival also means that won’t need to keep wickets. Uthappa and his slippery gloves have been in act for too many seasons. The KKR attack will be more confident and expect more grabs and agility behind the stumps.

Threats:

Overreliance on Under-19: Yuvraj Singh in 2000 was an exception. Apart from him, despite Under-19 success, players have taken time to get attuned to the larger arena. The rule even applied to a belligerent Virat Kohli or Suresh Raina or more recently Ishan Kishan.

Teams in the past have laden their sides with U-19 cricketers and provided them experience, but there have been back-ups. KKR have picked Gill, Mavi and Nagarkoti — three U-19 kids with little senior cricket experience, and they already form the side’s core. KKR have spent INR 8 crores on the trio and they will be expected to win game. 

Individually, it’s a great opportunity but it’s a threat KKR will have to be wary of.

Foreign players’ back-up: Cricketers get mobbed on Indian streets. Even a Gill will be. But a Cameron Delport or Javon Searles can pass by as tourists. Yes, they are the other two foreign players. Of course, they are talented, which is why they made it to the league in first place. But will a Delport be a good enough replacement for injured Lynn? Can Searles lead the pace attack if Johnson isn’t available for a few games? 

These are some questions the KKR think-tank did not address to during the auction.

Likely Starting XI

KKR should persist with Narine at the top. If he gets going nothing better and even if he does not, Uthappa, an opener anyway comes in. Narine is wasted at No. 8 and therefore KKR should continue with their strategy.  

Probable XI: Chris Lynn, Sunil Narine, Robin Uthappa, Nitish Rana, Dinesh Karthik (c & wk), Shubman Gill, Andre Russell, Piyush Chawla, Mitchell Johnson, Kuldeep Yadav, Kamlesh Nagarkoti/Shivam Mavi.