Tim Southee
Kolkata Knight Riders’ Tim Southee celebrates after claiming the wicket of Wriddhiman Saha of Sunrisers Hyderabad, with captain Eoin Morgan and Dinesh Karthik during the IPL match at the Dubai International Stadium on October 3, 2021. Image Credit: ANI

How did the Kolkata Knight Riders make the IPL playoffs? The answer is simple: they turned around a stuttering 2021 campaign with some excellent displays in the UAE, and the qualification to the last four was a just reward for their consistency.

Consistency was hardly Kolkata’s forte in India, where they struggled to score on the slow pitches. The pitches undermined their batting after a rollicking start to Season 14.

Irish Eden R. Belleza / Gulf News

Brendon McCullum of New Zealand is KKR’s chief coach and Eoin Morgan of England is the captain. They subscribe to the strategy of a blistering start, which can be perilous unless the team bat deep. It did work for New Zealand and England, but the plan returned mixed results for KKR. At least in Phase 1 of IPL 2021.

Kolkata were quick off the blocks in the early games as orthodox batsmen like Shubhman Gill and Nitish Rana cast away their straight jackets and pummelled the ball down the field in the powerplay. The strategy came unstuck when the openers fell cheaply. The middle-order was unable to shoulder the responsibility, and the result was a string of demoralising losses. The COVID-induced break allowed KKR to reassess their strategy.

When Kolkata came to the UAE for Phase 2, their strength had diminished a bit. Pat Cummins, the Australian who provided express pace and long hits, was unavailable. His replacement Tim Southee was no all-rounder and not very effective in the absence of assistance for swing bowling. And the UAE is no place for swing bowlers.

The new KKR strategy

It didn’t matter. KKR reworked their approach. They no longer had the pace to attack, but they have superb spinners in Varun Chakravarthy and Sunil Narine. The mystery spinners were employed in the powerplay to buy wickets; Chakravarthy even opened the bowling on several occasions. And Southee

The Kolkata plan worked. When a team grabs a couple of wickets in the powerplay or stifles the scoring in the first six overs, the opposition is under pressure. This is precisely what Chakravarthy and Narine did. Southee too picked up wickets in the powerplay, and after that, KKR could employ the medium-pacers to stem the scoring with the field spread out.

For a team that struggled to pick up six points from the seven games in India, Kolkata snatched eight from the next seven in the UAE. At 14 points, they were level with the Mumbai Indians but benefitted from a vastly superior net run rate.

So what changed for Kolkata in the UAE? One significant aspect was the discovery of Venkatesh Iyer. He provided rousing starts in the company of Gill and helped slow the rival scoring with medium-pace that included a healthy diet of yorkers.

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Even when the openers failed, there was Rahul Tripathi and Nitish Rana to keep the scoreboard. Dinesh Karthik provided the late-order hitting, although Morgan struggled for form.

Four wins in the last seven games point to a resurgence. Is it enough to steer them to the title? I don’t know. Because playoffs are tricky affairs. If you have a bad day in the office, it could be curtains. That’s precisely what KKR want to avoid.

How good are Kolkata’s chances? The Mumbai Indians are out of the way; that’s a huge relief. But the Chennai Super Kings are there. It shouldn’t worry KKR. They have the team to win. Just that they should play well in crunch situations.

A third IPL win for Kolkata could be a reality.