Kolkata Knight Riders: The puzzlers without the middle piece
It shouldn’t have mattered who’s on strike. But with 73 needed from five overs, Kolkata Knight Riders had a clear favourite on the night of the IPL final. It wasn’t Eoin Morgan, the captain of the side who wields his high bat like a sabre every time he meets the ball. It instead was Rahul Tripathi, the man with a famous six a couple of nights ago, whose bat doesn’t quite cut an arc as elegant but who was expected to do an encore, except on one leg this time.
Tripathi just couldn’t run while batting. He attempted a quick single off the first ball he faced but had to limp back to his crease instead, the hamstring in his right leg impeding his movement significantly. All he could do was stand and look to hit sixes, something that Kolkata should have done by design anyway. But forced into doing so by accident, the plan had more reasons to fail. Once Tripathi was caught at long-on, it was down to Morgan and Dinesh Karthik, two batsmen with roughly 11 runs per game between them this season.
It’s a staggering statistic. Coming into the final, Kolkata had won six out of six games chasing in the UAE leg. So to have two bonafide finishers tally such poor numbers not only explains just how good the top three were all season but also demands that the finishers do the job for once. Can they do it on a much better pitch than Sharjah? With plenty of dew around? With no express pace bowler in the opposition? And with a whole lot of records stacked in favour of the chasing side in Dubai?
The partnership between Karthik and Morgan lasted a mere 9 balls. For 11 runs. It started on a very different note though, with a first-ball six from Karthik reigniting hopes of redemption for two champion finishers, who though out of form know how to make a partnership work off the field too. And what better occasion to whip one with a championship on the line. But what looked like the start of a wonderful story was soon punctuated by frustration and false shots and nervous singles. Karthik’s catch at long leg finally put a full stop to that.
It wasn’t outlandish to expect Morgan to hit some form in the final. In fact, it made for the perfect finish to a perfect story for Kolkata this season. An out-of-form captain of the underdog team rising to the occasion in a title finish, who doesn’t ship that? Even Brendon McCullum was onboard but it was perhaps too good to be true.
“There’s many examples over the years of guys who have struggled for form leading into big games but then been able to find something in that situation to be able to get a performance. And that was what I was clinging on to tonight with both the captain and also the vice captain but it wasn’t to be,” McCullum, the head coach of KKR, said after the loss. “Those guys played their hearts out, they did their absolute best and they just weren’t quite able to get on to the performances that they would have liked. And I mean I’m still really pleased, really proud for anyone who bought into the vision that we had for the group, invested in what we’re trying to achieve, and ultimately took us on this journey which allowed us to have some great memories but just fell short.
“Look it’s a really unique situation, wasn’t it? He (Morgan) was captaining out of his skin, he was going about captaining as well as I’ve ever seen him captain, and as well as I’ve seen anyone really captain in a T20 competition. I thought he was driving the team forward with his captaincy. Unfortunately, the runs weren’t there for him no matter how hard he tried. We tried to put him (pauses) in that position where he’s been so successful in those last five overs right throughout his T20 career, but unfortunately wasn’t to be.”
It’s a shame that Morgan finishes with the runners-up trophy after a sea change in fortunes for his side, which saw Kolkata make the final after languishing at the seventh position at the halfway stage. But if Morgan’s team were to go all the way, it was only fair that the batting did the trick.
Middle-order was the last puzzle to crack for Kolkata, for the opening batsmen had more than done their job throughout the season and so had the bowlers, strangulating oppositions in the middle overs like no other team this season and, in the process, picking the most number of wickets. Sunil Narine even chipped in with the bat, and Varun Chakaravarthy threw himself around with two dodgy knees before a T20 World Cup. Shubman Gill upped his strike-rate. Venkatesh Iyer vroomed from anonymity to fame, adding a desperate dimension to the side, and Shakib Al Hasan made a successful roundabout to his first ever IPL franchise, hardly letting Kolkata feel the pinch of Andre Russell’s absence.
So, when Karthik got out and Morgan was joined in the middle by Tripathi a little later, there was a clear favourite for who should be on strike. It’s a choice that Kolkata could have done without, and it perhaps cost them the trophy, but even without it this remains an unreal season for Kolkata Knight Riders. MS Dhoni put it best. “If any team deserved to win the IPL this year, it is KKR for the way they have played.” There’s no two ways about this.