Sunil Narine
Kolkata Knight Riders’ Sunil Narine plays a shot during an Indian Premier League cricket match. His explosive batting at the top of the order has been a feature of KKR’s victories. Image Credit: AFP

Kolkata Knight Riders have the IPL title in their sights. Topping the IPL table (19 points) is a first for them in the T20 cricket franchise’s history, although they have won the title twice. Their best league finish was second place in 2012 before they went on to win their first title.

Led by Shreyas Iyer, Kolkata have been in good nick this season despite losing three of their 13 games. More importantly, they haven’t lost the last five games. The match against the Gujarat Titans in Ahmedabad was abandoned, and they still have a game in hand — against the Rajasthan Royals in Guwahati on May 19 (Sunday).

KKR will remain on top even if they lose their final league game to Rajasthan, whose loss to Punjab Kings on Wednesday snuffed out their hopes of topping the table. Given the woeful run — losing four games in a row — a Rajasthan win over Kolkata is unlikely.

Gautam Gambhir’s masterstroke

Kolkata haven’t had a good showing since winning the title in 2014. In the last 10 years, the team owned by Shahrukh Khan, Juhi Chawla, and her husband Jay Mehta came close to winning in 2021, when captain Eoin Morgan revived KKR’s fortunes in the UAE leg after a poor display in India. But they lost the Dubai final to the Chennai Super Kings.

How did KKR turn around their campaign this year? The masterstroke was the appointment of Gautam Gambhir as mentor. He had captained Kolkata to two championships, so it made total sense to bring him back to the KKR think-tank. The results were immediately apparent as he moulded the team into a solid fighting unit.

One of his critical decisions made an instant impact. Gambhir, who is aware of Sunil Narine’s pinch-hitting skills of the past, restored the West Indian to the opening slot and runs flowed from his blazing blade. In fact, Narine first opened for KKR under Gambhir’s captaincy in 2017, forming a destructive partnership with Chris Lynn. That worked well until bowlers learned of his discomfiture against the short ball.

Sunil Narine’s allround displays

The move to pair Narine with Phil Salt this season led to rollicking opening stands in the powerplay. Narine struck 461 runs in 13 matches (one was washed out) at a phenomenal strike rate of 182.93. With Salt, he formed a formidable combination, and Salt’s departure (to join the England camp) will be a blow for KKR in the playoffs.

Narine’s contribution was not limited to batting. His offspin continued to be restrictive and penetrative as he hunted in the company of mystery spinner Varun Chakravarthy. The duo formed the most feared spin attack in IPL this season, more so after Yuzvendra Chahal and Ravichandran Ashwin ceased to work wonders for Rajasthan.

KKR’s arsenal is not limited to spin. Their record buy Mitchell Starc, which cost them $2.97million, hasn’t been at his best, but Harshit Rana and Andre Russell have stepped up.

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Russell has come good with the bat too when KKR needed quick runs. Ramandeep Singh scores consistently, while Venkatesh Iyer has weighed in at crucial junctures. Shreyas Iyer, who has led the team with intent and aggression, is among the runs. Only Rinku Singh has been misfiring; he’s yet to recapture last year’s form. He could well be saving it for the playoff.

Kolkata is in a good frame of mind heading into the eliminators. They’ve had a string of fine wins, which would bolster their confidence. They should be favourites to win the title when the playoffs start on May 21.

Playoffs are tricky, but Kolkata have the team to win their third title. On current form, Shreyas Iyer should lift the trophy on May 26 at Chepauk. If that happens, KKR will owe Gambhir a debt of gratitude.