IPL preview - Kolkata Knight Riders
It was certainly a tale of two halves last season for KKR. During the Indian leg of the tournament, they were extremely disappointing, winning only two out of seven matches, with a style of performance that head coach Brendon McCullum clearly wasn’t pleased with. It led to his ‘if you can’t change a man, change the man’ quote after their seventh game last season, which ended up being the last game they played in India during the 2021 season. While some may have expected wholesale changes to the side ahead of the UAE leg, in reality, their regular starting XI didn’t actually change that much. Most of the changes made were enforced, whether that was through injuries to Andre Russell or the unavailability of Pat Cummins for the UAE leg. The most noteworthy change they made that wasn’t enforced, was deciding to bring in Venkatesh Iyer at the top of the order. Iyer had a very successful run of games, scoring 370 runs in ten innings, and also chipped in with a few wickets, a string of performances that resulted in him being retained by KKR ahead of this season.
KKR’s performances improved drastically in the second half of last season, winning five of their remaining seven group games and then winning back-to-back knockout games, meaning they played in an IPL final for the first time since 2014. They eventually lost the final to CSK, despite an opening partnership of over 90 a faltering middle order let them down. Reaching the final has to be seen as a positive for KKR, who have been a sleeping giant for far too long.
Brendon McCullum will be head coach again for Kolkata, even though it’s still early days in his coaching career, he seems to have an impressive philosophy and very much wants his sides to play in a similar way to how he did. On the captaincy front, things have changed, Eoin Morgan wasn’t re-purchased at auction, perhaps not surprising given his below-par batting returns last season, where he could only manage 133 runs in 16 innings at a strike rate of under 100. Shreyas Iyer — who KKR purchased for an eyebrow-raising 12.25cr at the mega auction, has been announced as captain of the side. A player who has typically been quite conservative in his approach to t20’s, though his recent performances for India have been a breath of fresh air, can he perform at a similar level in the IPL?
Retained players: Andre Russell, Varun Chakravarthy, Venkatesh Iyer & Sunil Narine.
Pat Cummins - Despite not being in the Australia white balls squads, Australia aren’t allowing any of their players that would’ve been in the squad to play in the IPL until the series vs Pakistan concludes (April 5th). Cummins will miss the first two matches for KKR.
To be honest I was a little surprised to see KKR retain both Chakravarathy & Narine. In tandem, they were very successful last season, however, the pitches helped them out a lot, more so than they would in other IPL seasons. Can they be a successful duo in the long term?
Based on the retentions they made, their strategy looked very clear, they wanted as many dual-role players as possible. By retaining the four players they did, it possibly covers 10 overs and three of their top 8 batting positions. A bold strategy but one which should give them plenty of options when it comes to team balance.
KKR also made a few big purchases in order to regain the services of players that had played for them in previous seasons. Notably Nitish Rana, Pat Cummins & Shivam Mavi for a combined total of 22.5cr. In my opinion, Cummins for 7.25cr was a great bit of business and while they might have slightly overpaid for the other two, given the context of the mega auction and the fact it’s now a ten-team tournament, I think both are okay deals.
They managed to keep most of the core group together from last season but they did lose a couple of big names. Obviously, the aforementioned Morgan isn’t returning, while Shubman Gill and Dinesh Karthik also joined different franchises. While it’s a shame that Gill has left KKR, who invested a lot of time into him over the last four seasons, his returns haven’t necessarily justified that, despite his seemingly endless talent. If he progresses fully, it’ll be a big loss for KKR but as of right now, his impact can easily be replaced. As for the departure of DK, it was probably best for both parties, since having captaincy taken off him partway through the 2020 season, you always felt this was the likely end result. I also don’t think KKR have utilised him all that well with the bat in recent seasons and as a result, his returns have dipped. Shubman joined Gujarat Titans on a pre-auction deal for 8cr, while Dinesh Karthik joined RCB for 5.5cr, both feel like good moves for each player.
All in all, despite having what can only be described as a slightly messy auction — it felt like KKR were over-confident with their approach, almost assuming they’d be able to get one of Odean Smith, Tim David, or Liam Livingstone on day two, despite the fact that their purse was much lower than some of the other teams. In the end, none of those moves materialised and they ended up with Sam Billings, who should get a good run of games and a possibility to finally establish himself as an IPL regular.
In the initial games that Cummins will miss, one of Nabi, Southee, or Chamika Karunaratne will come in. None of these are exactly inspiring options, I’d suggest Southee or Nabi would be more likely. With bowling quality perhaps being more important to KKR in a Cummins replacement and given they already have two frontline spinners, plus Rana as a part-time option if needed, I’d go with Southee but he isn’t an ideal option.
Other than that it looks like a fairly settled XI for KKR. Initially, I would’ve expected more debate between the second opening position & number 5, as they had two options; Hales & Sheldon Jackson or Rahane & Billings, depending on where they thought it was more important to have their final overseas player in the batting line up. I would’ve leaned towards Rahane & Billings anyway, however, Alex Hales pulling out of the tournament and his replacement being Aaron Finch has made this an even easier decision.
Of the domestic backup players, Sheldon Jackson & Rinku Singh probably have the best chances of playing, if KKR decides to go with a batting-heavy lineup, utilising V Iyer & Russell as the fifth bowler. Sheldon Jackson, in particular, has arguably been the best performing batter over the last three seasons:
Sheldon Jackson has outstanding numbers, with the highest average and one of the higher strike rates, while Rinku Singh has generally scored runs in all formats at domestic level in recent years, both represent good backup options.
Spin bowling - To be honest, Chakravarthy & Narine were the main reason why KKR managed to reach the final last season. The two of them to a combined 34 wickets an economy of just over 6.5 rpo. Outperforming most other spin duo’s in the tournament, in teams where two spinners combined for more than 400 deliveries in the IPL 2021 season, the KKR duo, were the best:
RCB’s spin attack carried a slightly greater wicket-taking threat but KKR’s was the most economical and also took wickets more regularly than most. What makes it even more impressive, is the number of deliveries they bowled, playing the entire tournament, so they didn’t just benefit from conditions in the UAE like some spinners did. Also over 30% of the deliveries that Chakravarthy & Narine bowled, either came in the powerplay or during the death overs. Very impressive seasons from the pair and this is how they ranked among spinners to bowl at least 150 deliveries last season:
As you can see from the above, Chakravarathy and Narine were both comfortably above average and were among the best spinners last season. I don’t expect that to be any different this time around, even if pitches are easier for batting, the class of these two should stand out.
Powerplay bowling - If KKR decides to go with the pace trio of Umesh Yadav, Mavi & Cummins, which I’m expecting them to, they looked to have an abundance of resources when it comes to powerplay bowling. Especially when you consdier that Chakravarthy is capable of bowling in powerplays as well. Cummins & Mavi have pretty good powerplay numbers and Umesh Yadav has historically been good in powerplays as well, even if that’s been less common in recent years.
Batting depth - At full strength, KKR will have Cummins & Narine at 7 & 8, depending on which order they want them in. Neither are reliable batters in the sense you’ll regularly get positive impact 20 ball innings out of them, in any case, the positions they bat wouldn’t really allow that. However, both are capable of producing multiple 5–10 ball cameo’s over the course of a season, which is all you really need from a number 7 & 8 in my opinion. With Narine, you’ve also got the option to promote him up the order, as a spin hitter, if needed.
Overseas backup quality - KKR look to have weaker overseas backups than most other teams this year. Not many teams spent big in this regard, a theme for this year’s auction was teams spending a higher percentage of their purse than ever on their starting XI. Despite that, plenty of teams managed to pick up pretty good depth options in the overseas department at low/base prices. However, I’m not convinced KKR have done that with Nabi, Karunaratne, Finch & Southee.
Death overs bowling - I don’t necessarily always believe this is a massive issue, provided you’ve got quality bowling options to come before that. With three pace bowlers capable of reaching 140+ and two quality wrist spin options, both of whom are quick through the air, KKR have that quality. Having said that, it’s certainly not a strength of KKR. Umesh Yadav is notoriously bad at the death, while Cummins has struggled in this regard at IPL level (almost 11rpo) in comparison to 8rpo for Australia. Mavi is someone who I think could develop into a pretty good death bowler, as someone who is capable of reaching 140–145 and has a fairly low release point, which could help him. Whether or not he is ready to carry the burden immediately, I’m less convinced.
Batting against high pace - Shreyas & Rana both have poor numbers against any sort of pace, while Venkatesh Iyer and Rahane don’t necessarily have standout numbers against pace either. Even though they’ve got some good middle/lower order hitters, it certainly isn’t an ideal situation for KKR.
Venkatesh Iyer - I actually think the impact he had on the team last season was underrated. 370 runs in ten innings was a phenomenal effort given the conditions. Perhaps it’s because people see a strike rate of below 130 (128.5) and naturally aren’t all that impressed, in reality, this was seven runs per 100 balls higher than the average scoring rate during the UAE leg. Of course, there were some players that out-performed him (Maxwell, Gaikwad, Faf) but Venkatesh was better than most. Has been very good at attacking his spin match-up so far (SR 153 against SLA/leg spin) and has yet to be dismissed by a SLA bowler (82 runs from 48 balls) though it’s still early days in this regard. Can offer some part-time medium pace with the ball, in terms of speeds, low/mid 130’s seems to be his ceiling.
Ajinkya Rahane - Not exactly a signing to get the fans off their feet. Rahane has struggled to make an impact over the last couple of IPL seasons, in the limited amount of matches he has played. Scoring 121 runs in nine innings, at a strike rate of just above 100 during the two seasons he played for Delhi Capitals and he only played one much last season. His numbers in seasons prior to that were okay, particularly his 2019 season for Rajasthan, where he averaged 32 and stuck at 137. I don’t think he was necessarily given a fair crack at DC and as an opener, with managed expectations of his output, I think he could do an okay job for KKR. If you’re expecting a 500 run season at a strike rate of 140, you’re likely to be left disappointed, however, KKR will be aware, having picked him up at base price, that he’s unlikely to have a blitzing campaign. If he can perform to the level of an average IPL batter they’ll be content. I’m just throwing numbers around but I think if you offered KKR a season where Rahane averaged 25 and struck in the high 120’s/low 130’s, I think they’d be satisfied. Did a decent job in his return to domestic t20’s last season, scoring 286 runs in five innings at a strike rate of 134.
Shreyas Iyer - If you had asked people what they thought of the Shreyas signing at 12.25cr immediately after the auction, the response you’d get would likely be very different from the one you’d get today. A lot can happen in sport during the space of a month and it’s been a golden month for Shreyas, with performances in tests and t20’s for India. Naturally, I’m going to focus on the t20’s, where Shreyas scored 200 runs in the three match t20 series against Sri Lanka, without being dismissed, while scoring at a strike rate of 172. He did this batting a number three, which is where he will most likely bat for KKR. It would be easy to write off these performances based on the fact they were against Sri Lanka, however, the given conditions the games were played in tested what have typically been weak points for Shreyas Iyer. The pitches in Dharamsala were quick and Shreyas was at the crease inside two overs on both occasions, facing the pace of Chameera & Kumra, in addition to the steep bounce of Binura Fernando and he passed these tests with flying colours.
Is it recency bias or will there be a mindest change in t20’s for Shreyas? A mindset change is obviously not responsible for such a boost in stats, however, I do think there are a couple of areas in which a simple mindset change could yield immediate improvements in his game; his powerplay approach and how often he attacks against spin. He already has quite a good balls per six rate against spin; hitting a six every 16.4 deliveries over the last four seasons, which ranks him in the upper third of batters to face at least 200 deliveries against spin:
When he actually attacks against spin, he is quite good and you can tell that from watching he bat. Most of the sixes he hits against spin and generally fairly big and almost dismissive and it almost leaves you questioning why he doesn’t do that more often? There’s a possibility that he already does this while playing for India, perhaps it’s the confidence of better pitches than we’ve seen in recent IPL seasons but Shreyas has hit 16 sixes in 161 deliveries against spin for India. If he can find a way to get his IPL numbers slightly closer to that level, it would boost his overall strike rate more than you’d think. As for his powerplay game, I don’t think anyone with technique like Shreyas has should ever have such a poor powerplay strike rate (115). Of course this can be influenced by the positions he bats, if you’re coming into bat in the powerplay with a couple of wickets down you’re likely to adopt a more conservative approach. However, he has mainly batted at 3 in the IPL and is likely to do so this season and with the batting depth KKR have, he’ll have no excuses for playing so securely. The way he has talked about adopting the approach McCullum wants his teams to take is good news but it’s time for him to back it up with performances now.
Nitish Rana - In a way, Rana is quite a confusing player. Known for being quite a good player of spin and struggles against high pace but not necessarily in the way you’d expect it. Numbers like his over the past four IPL seasons against spin can’t go under the radar - average = 32, strike rate = 148 is very impressive and they’ve held up during the last two seasons, in more spin-friendly conditions:
Only Agarwal and Shaw have scored at a faster rate against spin than Rana during the last two IPL seasons and Rana has been slightly more secure than both, while also facing more deliveries against spin (223 compared to 160–165 for Shaw & Agarwal). If we look at boundary percentages and strike rotation against spin, Rana is also one of the better boundary hitters:
As you can see from the above, Shaw is the only one with a higher boundary percentage than Rana. He has also faced a far greater percentage of his deliveries against spin in powerplays (45% in comparison to 16 for Rana) which could possibly help, though to be fair to Shaw, his boundary percentage holds up outside of powerplays as well.
I said earlier that Rana’s numbers are slightly unusual. I mentioned this because despite his excellent record his spin, he’s still relatively weak against leg spin. Over the last IPL auction cycle (four seasons) he averaged 23 and struck at 123 against leg spin, which certainly isn’t anything to get excited about. This was in comparison to his record against orthodox spin (SLA/Off spin) — an average of 58 & strike rate of over 170, these are insanely good numbers. So, given his poor record against high pace and below-average numbers against leg spin, I think KKR slightly overpaid for him at (8cr), on the basis he should be relatively easy to plan against for an opposition team. Can bowl some part-time off spin and that’s possibly been under-utilised by KKR in recent seasons.
Sam Billings - Billings has had a decent time of it in t20’s of late, with a couple of good stints in the BBL and some more promising cameo’s for England in the chances he has gotten. His numbers during the last two seasons of BBL for Sydney Thunder have been very good; averaging almost 40 and striking at just below 150, while mostly batting at 4. He’s likely to bat at 5 for KKR, which will be a role that will test his skills more so than most and with the top order KKR have, I expect quite a lot of variance in the type of starts they get so Billings will likely have to bat in a lot of different situations over the course of the season.
Andre Russell - His numbers have definitely dropped off over the last couple of years (SR 178 to 164) and balls per dismissal has also decreased, I think it’s fair to suggest he has probably got a bit worse. However, I don’t blame KKR for continuing to back him, a weaker version of Dre Russ is still better than 95% of t20 batters. I don’t think you can count on him with the ball in higher-level tournaments anymore, however, his variety at the death can add a bit of a value as a secondary option. Despite a drop off in numbers, he’ll still be seen as KKR’s primary finisher and pace hitter towards the back end of the innings.
Sunil Narine - Still a very reliable option with the ball, as he proved last season, and is still capable of destruction in short bursts with the bat. A couple of his cameos last season were vital for KKR. Narine has already made an impact at a tournament in 2022, scoring 159 runs at a strike rate of nearly 200 and going at under 6rpo in the BPL, which to be honest is a tournament that almost suits his skill set perfectly. You basically have to bowl high pace & short against him, otherwise, you risk going the distance.
Pat Cummins - His IPL career for KKR has sort of flattered to deceive so far, will this season be his year? He hasn’t quite found a role with the ball yet and I’m not 100% sure what it’ll be this season. I think it could mainly be as an ‘enforcer’ in a 1–2–1 role, however, I’d always be tempted to give someone who is good as Cummins is with the red ball, more overs with the new ball. However, with Umesh and Mavi also in the side, it isn’t an easy situation to manage, there are worse problems to have though. His numbers with the new ball in the 2020 season were actually very good; 22 overs, 130 runs conceded, with six wickets, between overs 1–3, though three of those wickets did come in one game. Then in the 2021 season, he only bowled three overs between overs 1–3 in the 2021 season. I’d like to see Umesh and Cummins take the new ball for KKR, with Mavi bowling the later powerplay overs. Cummins is also deceptively quick in t20’s with an average speed in the high 130’s during the last two IPL seasons and over 50% of his deliveries are above 140, which is far more than I expected. His batting value is also underrated, he is striking in the mid 170’s against non-spin since 2019, that’s certainly a luxury to have at number 9.
Umesh Yadav - Perhaps a player that was written off at IPL level too early, having only played two IPL games in the last two seasons. He had a poor 2019 season; only taking 8 wickets at a strike rate of almost 30 and an economy of 9.8rpo but almost didn’t get a chance after that. Despite good performances in the 2017 & 18 seasons, where he took 37 wickets at an economy of 8.14, I certainly think he deserves another chance at IPL level, especially when you consider his potential powerplay upside. Like Cummins, he is capable of reaching high speeds, though it’s harder to judge whether than information is completely accurate with Umesh as he is now 34 and hasn’t really played at IPL level for two seasons.
Shivam Mavi - Possibly slightly overpriced at 7.25cr but you can see why KKR were so desperate to get him back. A 23 year old domestic pace bowler that has held his own over the last two seasons, isn’t exactly something that India has in abundance. In fact, Mavi has been one of the better domestic pacers over the course of the last two IPL seasons:
There are probably only three domestic bowlers that you can say have definitely been better (Bumrah, Siraj & Avesh Khan). Initially, when I saw how good his numbers had been in comparison to other pace bowlers I thought it might have been as a result of bowling more ‘easier overs’ than other bowlers but that wasn’t the case either:
As you can see, Mavi sits in the middle ground so he hasn’t exactly been a beneficiary of bowling easy overs. There’s also another interesting stat when it comes to Mavi and that’s the rate in which he has conceded sixes compared to other bowlers:
Mavi has conceded sixes less often than any other pace bowler that’s bowled at least 300 deliveries over the course of the last two seasons. I mentioned earlier about his low release point and this could help when it comes to avoiding being hit for sixes, Mavi’s average release point is 1.91m, which is in the bottom 30 of the near 200 bowlers that have bowled a delivery over the last four seasons. Overall, I don’t mind this purchase from KKR.
Varun Chakravarthy - Has been a revelation over the last two seasons. His bowling numbers are excellent and he has been particularly threatening against LHB’s, with a strike rate of 15, in comparison 27 against RHB’s. Very quick through the air, with an average speed of just over 95kmph, which would rank him among the fastest spinners in the competition. I’m not expecting a huge drop-off in numbers, even if pitches are better for batting throughout the entirety of the tournament.
Tim Southee - Probably has the best chance of playing in place of Cummins for the initial matches. Not the most exciting option but to be fair, his numbers have been pretty good for New Zealand, considering how good the conditions generally are for batting in their home matches. His economy of 8.39 in home games since 2018, is only bettered by Lockie Ferguson when it comes to pace bowlers. I think there were better options available though, even more so given Southee’s base price was 1.5cr.
Mohammad Nabi - Nabi is still a good defensive bowler but his batting has fallen off a cliff lately, his strike rate of 122 since the start of 2021 doesn’t inspire much confidence at all. He’s essentially a bowling all-rounder these days, if you get something from him with the bat, it’s a bonus. Again, I think they could’ve done better here.
Chamika Karunaratne - I don’t necessarily have a massive issue with this signing, I think Chamika has quite a bit of potential, particularly with his batting, however, I’m not sure he is ready for IPL level yet. The big issue he has currently is that he is quite a slow starter (first 10 balls SR is below 110), which you can’t really afford to be in the role he bats. If he can work on that, he’ll start to become a more viable option for franchise teams.
Aaron Finch - Replacing the current version of Hales with the current version of Finch is about as big a downgrade as you can get, like going from the newest version of an iPhone to a 2012 model. If we compare the two over some stats since 2020, it’s fairly compelling:
Hales has been levels above Finch in basically every important stat for an opener in t20’s. Incredibly Hales strikes at almost 50 runs per 100 balls quicker than Finch in powerplays since the start of 2020, the drop-off in quality is massive and that’s not to say Hales would’ve been faultless at IPL level either. There also seems to be limited evidence that Finch can turn this around, he’s now 35 and his last IPL campaign for RCB was very underwhelming and he hasn’t really had a standout tournament since then, his technique isn’t exactly convincing either.
Sheldon Jackson - As I mentioned earlier, his numbers in domestic cricket have been very impressive, batting in a variety of positions. He probably has a slight edge over Rinku Singh when it comes to making the XI.
Rinku Singh - Being a left-hander could help his case, though that’s not necessarily something KKR lack, especially if they’re willing to be flexible with Narine’s role again this season. It would be nice to see Rinku get regular game time at IPL level because he looks to be a level above most domestic players in domestic competitions but I can’t see this year being a breakthrough year and he’ll likely have to settle for a place on the bench.
Anukul Roy - An okay SLA option, that also has a bit of batting ability — has hit a six better than every 14 balls in his SMA career. Also a very good fielder. Decent squad player.
Player stats sheets:
Overall, I think KKR are looking pretty good ahead of the season and perhaps some, including me, have been a bit harsh on the auction they had. It wasn’t the most exciting but they seem to have most bases covered in their starting XI. A potential shortcoming for them could be if they suffer any injuries, the drop off in quality from their starting XI to the bench looks more noticeable than it is for other teams.
In terms of where I think they’ll finish, I believe I’m more optimistic than most about their chances this season. The bowling attack looks really solid to me; two mystery spinners that are quick through the air won’t be easy to face in any conditions. The pace attack is probably missing an attack ‘leader’ like a Bumrah/Archer/Nortje type but the overall trio is fairly high quality in my opinion. Their top order batting isn’t ideal but if Shreyas can find a better balance between risk & security than he has in previous seasons then they should be alright.
If they can keep a fully fit XI throughout the tournament, I think KKR will reach the play offs again this year.
Thanks for reading!