Venkatesh Iyer
Venkatesh Iyer of the Kolkata Knight Riders in action during the IPL match against the Mumbai Indians in Abu Dhabi on September 23, 2021. Image Credit: ANI

The Kolkata Knight Riders’ revival has been remarkable. The efferscent form of Eoin-Morgan’s side in the UAE is a far cry from the troubles that derailed them in the early part of the Indian Premier League.

In the slow pitches of Chennai, Kolkata’s batting suffered. Their persistent aggression wrought disaster. Form and confidence plummeted, Kolkata were relegated to the bottom half of the points table.

When IPL 2021 took a COVID-induced break, Kolkata had managed only four points from seven games. That translates into two wins and five losses, which placed them only above the Sunrisers Hyderabad.

In the UAE, Kolkata have showed us their potential. The fresh pitches seemed to help spinners Varun Chakravarthy and Sunil Narine; seamer Prasidh Krishna has enjoyed the bounce and carry. Their performances were crucial in the runaway wins against the Royal Challengers Bangalore and the Mumbai Indians — two of the four teams at the top of the leaderboard.

Brendon McCullum’s signature straegy

Bangalore and Mumbai are IPL heavyweights, and their rout reflects the strength of Kolkata, who have been flaunting their brand of all-out aggression. The full press from the start has been a signature strategy of coach Brendon McCullum. He had successfully employed the tactic during his reign as New Zealand captain, where he led the way with blistering starts.

Eoin Morgan used it for scripting England’s success in the 2019 World Cup; ironically, they beat New Zealand in the final. Glimpses of Kolkata’s aggressive batting were seen in IPL Season 13 last year. But they didn’t have the batsmen to sustain it.

Aggression from the start is not easy because it’s fraught with enormous risk. It’s a double-edged sword. Failure is a distinct possibility. To offset that, the side needs plenty of batting depth and a strong opening pair. That was the problem last year. Shubhman Gill’s tepid scoring rate has to be balanced by the strokeplay by his partner. Nitish Rana managed that in a couple of games before fading away.

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So, what changed? The discovery of Venkatesh Iyer has ignited the embers, and Kolkata’s batting fire has raged in the two games at the Zayed Cricket Stadium in Abu Dhabi. Iyer’s resplendent strokeplay has freed Gill to play his natural game, although he’s been taking calculated risks at every opportunity.

Rahul Tripathi is a delight to watch when he gets going. His form is integral to Kolkata’s fortunes, but they have more stroke players down the order. Morgan, Nitish Rana, Dinesh Karthik and Andre Russell can keep the momentum going, but there’s an inherent flaw. They may be dashers, but the batting has cracked under pressure.

In the first two games in the UAE, the Kolkata bowlers did such a good job that the batters were never under strain. They dismissed Bangalore well under 100 and reined in Mumbai after their rousing start. When the target is within reach, the batsmen have the freedom to play without stress.

That has worked well for Kolkata, who have displaced Mumbai from fourth place in the points table. The scramble for playoff spots has begun, and Kolkata must continue in the same vein if they have to make the last four. The authority with which they won the two games promises better days ahead.

IPL 2021 just got more interesting.