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KKR vs SRH, IPL 2022: Kolkata stay alive in playoffs race by picking their best side, but it might be too late


24 changes. Six different opening combinations in 13 matches. Shreyas Iyer’s truth bomb regarding team selection inputs coming in from different quarters of Kolkata Knight Riders’ hierarchy hit home painfully. When so many changes happen across only 13 games in one Indian Premier League season, there is some inconvenient discussion to happen around it.

It starts with the team’s form. Seven losses in 12 games before they met up with Sunrisers Hyderabad on Saturday night, and their hopes of qualifying for the knockouts were hanging by a thread. This isn’t the kind of form Kolkata was hoping for when it invested in new leadership for the 2022 season. Paying a hefty INR 12.25 crore for Shreyas Iyer, it can be argued that Kolkata had hoped for more.

Certainly the fans did, for social media was abuzz with discussion and hot-takes around the captaincy issue. With Dinesh Karthik and Eoin Morgan both moving on, there was a leadership void at the franchise and they needed to address it for the long term. Shreyas provided that option, and Kolkata wilfully took it. But the first season has proven to be a tough one.

Last year finalists, KKR are now struggling to reach IPL 2022 playoffs. Sportzpics

The KKR captain ought to be disappointed himself, particularly with his form. Shreyas had come into the IPL with some tremendous hitting against Sri Lanka. In three matches, he had smacked 204 runs at a strike rate of 174.35. His current return is average in comparison – 351 runs in 13 innings at a strike rate of 130.48 with two half-centuries. Much the same form as against Lanka was expected, but you have to compensate for the league format. It is different from bilateral cricket.

Not to mention, he hasn’t batted at the preferred number three position throughout these 13 games. Shreyas Iyer and Nitish Rana have alternated at numbers three and four depending on the situation as Kolkata has tried to maintain a left-right combination in the middle. It makes for some serious questioning – is it his thinking as captain, or has coach Brendon McCullum chipped in here? Maybe Shreyas should have shed some light on this matter too, along with the tongue slip about the KKR CEO’s inputs.

McCullum’s coaching credentials have also come under the spotlight this past week. He has gained the English Test job, something that has surprised if not stunned cricket fans across the world. While he did play a small role in New Zealand’s ascendancy as a cricketing force, it is his recent results as a coach in franchise cricket that come under the scanner a bit. He was the coach for Trinbago Knight Riders in CPL 2019 and 2020, winning the latter tournament, which probably isn’t hard to do with the best team in the competition.

As concerns the IPL, which has more stringent competition than the CPL, McCullum took charge from 2020 onwards and results under him have been consistently inconsistent. Sample this. In IPL 2020, Kolkata won seven and lost seven games, finishing fifth. In IPL 2021, it was the same ratio – seven wins and seven losses, just scraping through to fourth place, albeit the winning run across the UAE leg saw the Knight Riders make it all the way to the final.

Now again in 2022, Kolkata has six wins and seven losses in 13 matches, and they currently need to beat Lucknow Super Giants to even hold a mathematical chance of making it to the top four. Truth be told, this 50-percent success rate across three seasons in arguably the most competitive T20 franchise tournament in the world doesn’t make for comfortable reading, especially if you are either a KKR or an English cricket fan.

Patchy captaincy, inconsistent coaching and some interference from the management have together led Kolkata down to the present scenario. When, at the business end of the tournament, you are counting the number of team changes made rather than the number of wins or points or run rate, it is obvious where the problem lies. After winning the last two games, especially after beating Sunrisers Hyderabad on Saturday night, Shreyas recounted the need to make those changes.

The original game plan wasn’t working, he conceded, and they needed to do something different. It is the path to tread upon, sure, in a league format, but is there something like too many changes? Even last season, Kolkata offered a mixed bag in terms of batting positions and overall strategy. You couldn’t predict what they would come out across from one game to the next. From 2021 to 2022, there isn’t any discernible difference in gameplay or team identity as such. Apart from the fact that they all try batting aggressively and mostly have to save themselves from collapses, if at all.

Saturday was much the same story. In a must-win game, Ajinkya Rahane, Nitish Rana, Shreyas Iyer and Sam Billings all got starts, but none of these top five batsmen were able to really carry on. At 94-5 in 11.3 overs, the run rate was hovering at 8.3 per over and KKR looked dead-and-buried. You didn’t really expect them to cross 150. That’s where Andre Russell stepped in again, smacking 49 not out off 28 balls, and taking his team to a very competitive 177-6.

Those three sixes and 20 runs in the last over off Washington Sundar were quite timely. It reflected on the one consistent manoeuvre that Kolkata have deployed throughout this season. Russell has batted late in the order, either at number seven or even at eight, almost as a buffer for the attacking cricket Kolkata’s top order has attempted. If they lose a lot of wickets early, which they did, Russell gets to play a lot of overs. If they don’t, Russell still gets to play the finisher – it doesn’t take much for him to tee off.

While Shreyas is their highest-scoring batsman (351 runs), Russell isn’t far off with 330 runs in 13 games. He has made more impact though – his strike-rate 182.32 is way above the rest, with Rana’s 139.30 the highest among top-order batsmen. It has clearly focussed the spotlight on Kolkata’s issues this season – the runs haven’t come from the likes of Venkatesh Iyer, Rahane, Rana, Aaron Finch or the captain himself. It is capped by poor displays with the ball from Varun Chakravarthy and inconsistency from Pat Cummins.

As much as Kolkata’s captain and coach like to keep chopping and changing, this season around, their players have given a reason to do so. And it is probably why they won’t qualify for the knockouts, despite a consistent team selection in the last two must-win games yielding four points. Barring a miracle, it is too late for the Knight Riders to save this season.

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