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Cricket news - The Andre Russell-size dilemma for captains

Russell hammered 88 off 36 balls the last time CSK hosted KKR.

In the first 11 editions of IPL, no team had ever scored 53 in the last three overs to win the game. Kolkata Knight Riders, in IPL 2019, have pulled off the feat twice already and with relative ease all because of the astonishing striking abilities of one man - Andre Russell. His towering presence at the crease ensured bowlers cracked under pressure and both Sunrisers Hyderabad and Royal Challengers Bangalore paid the price for it. It wasn't surprising. "I am looking in the bowler's eyes and letting them know I am at the crease," he had said about his approach of intimidating the bowlers.

So it's understandable if the CSK bowlers' meeting extends just a bit as they prepare to take on the rampant Russell. The allrounder has so far smashed 49* (19), 48 (17), 62 (28) and 48* (13) - that's 207 runs at an average of 103.50 where he's scored at 16.56 runs per over with a boundary coming every 2.26 balls. The two dismissals so far have been on back of length slower deliveries - against Kings XI Punjab and Delhi Capitals - but that isn't his weak zone as he's picked up 53 off 27 from that length so far this season.

As Mohammed Shami (off a no ball) and Kagiso Rabada (in the Super Over against Capitals) showed the only way to stop his belligerent hitting at the moment is the perfectly executed yorker at the base of the stump. Far too often bowlers have tried to go for the wide yorker against him this season, missed their mark and paid the price. Make no mistake, they have come close as well. Two wide Chris Morris yorkers were chopped past the stumps by the allrounder in Delhi for boundaries before the carnage ensued. What Russell has done brilliantly is reduce any room for error for the bowlers when they want to bowl full. Anything that's full, he's plundered 75 off just 18 deliveries to hurt the opposition.

He presents an interesting dilemma to the bowling side as soon as he walks in. He has so far in the season found it easier to survive against the spinners - a weakness he's improved on - and finds it even more easier to score against the pacers. So the opposition captain needs to decide whether he wants to contain the damage for a brief while or go for the high-risk option and allow him to score from the get-go in the hope of getting the wicket against the pacers. In IPL 2019, he's scored 27 runs against the spinners in 14 balls without being dismissed. Against the fast bowlers, he has 180 runs from 68 balls and has been dismissed thrice (once in the Super Over). "Against the spinners, I am just looking to survive and then against the seamers, I am looking to maximise because it's a lot easier," were his words last year about his approach.

After Russell completed his carnage against RCB, a lot of criticism was directed at Virat Kohli for not using Pawan Negi's final over before it was too late. KKR needed 66 runs in the last four overs when Navdeep Saini bowled the 13-run over. A lot of the criticism directed at the captain was fair as he missed the trick by not bowling Negi in the 18th over when Russell had faced just two balls. Once set, he's equally capable of taking on the spinners - just like he showed during the knock against Capitals, smashing Amit Mishra and Sandeep Lamichhane with disdain. RCB, and Kohli, were massively let down by the pacers but the captain had opted for a high-risk strategy and had it come off, maybe the side would have bagged their first win.

"You've just got to be pretty accurate against the likes of Russell, Dhoni, Pollard or Pandya because the pressure is always on," Stephen Fleming said about the challenge posed by Russell. "There are a couple of challenges. You can either ignore the other six in a team that has got Lynn, Uthappa, Karthik and you do that on your own peril. Or you can not focus much on Russell because good work is being done by other batsmen as well. A lot of teams are really loading up on analysis and numbers but it's important to simplify a lot of things. Sometimes, information overload can be really confusing. You can't over plan. You just got to be free of mind. If you get too caught up about who bowls when and where you can miss the crucial nuances of the game."

Russell stands between CSK and the top spot in the table and the hosts, for now, seem in a good place to stop Russell. They have three quality spinners in Harbhajan Singh, Imran Tahir and Ravindra Jadeja and have the pace of Scott Kuggeleijn in their ranks along with a pitch to assist their strengths. Dwayne Bravo's injury couldn't have come at a better time for the hosts as his pace was just to the liking of Russell. The last time CSK hosted KKR, they saw the all-rounder blaze away to 88 of 36 and carry the side over 200. In that knock, he faced eight deliveries from Tahir and scored five runs. Neither Jadeja nor Harbhajan bowled at him as he carted the pacers to all parts of the ground with Bravo going for 47 from 14 deliveries.

With the spin-friendly nature of the track, it won't be surprising to see MS Dhoni give a heavy dose of spin to Russell. And if the move doesn't work, he will be forced to turn to Deepak Chahar or Kuggeleijn. Chahar almost cracked under pressure against KXIP before recovering while Kuggeleijn impressed after a horror first two overs on debut. Russell, so far in the tournament, has developed a peculiar trigger movement against the pacers. While he's still got the wide base - which helps him get under the ball easily and gives him more stability - he is consciously looking to plant his left feet outside the leg stump as soon as the ball is delivered irrespective of the area he's looking to hit. Even when he's trying to clear the offside field, his left leg is considerably outside the leg stump. Against the spinners, he's focussing on having a strong base and play the attacking shots without moving his feet - allowing his power, which is there in abundance, to do the work.

Russell is not the modern-day 360-degree player and his trigger movement, often restricts his access to the area behind the 'keeper. Instead of the dramatic movements at the crease, he's banking on his stable base to clear any delivery in the arc from wide of long-off to mid-wicket. As has been on display, he's hit bouncers outside off over long-on off the front foot and also managed to send a head-high beamer targetted at his right shoulder over the same area. In the 22 sixes from him so far, only two have been behind square - one top edge against KXIP at the Eden Gardens and the other one against RCB in Bangalore when he cut a wide one over the third man fence. The remaining 20 sixes have either come straight, towards mid-wicket, over long-on or wide of long-off. The late trigger movement is allowing his arm the much-needed free-flowing space and hence it isn't surprising most of his sixes have come in front of the wicket.

If the spinners don't get the Jamaican, CSK pacers will have to bring on their 'A' game to restrict the damage. So how can the pacers stop the allrounder from scoring freely? Unfortunately, with his striking abilities, there are not a lot of options to dismiss him apart from the perfectly bowled yorker. There are, however, ways to restrict the damage. Use a legspinner for one. One of the options for the pacers, with Russell planting his left foot, is that they could target a yorker at the base of the left leg. If they miss it, the right-hander will have the leg side boundary to pick on, which can be protected, but if they do execute it well, it'll hamper the swing of his bat. It's again a high-risk option with the potential of yielding results or at least stopping the flow of runs.

CSK, in all likelihood, will turn to Chahar and Kuggeleijn once again at the death. And while Chahar's pace is just what suits Russell, Kuggeleijn could well be the key in the battle. "Kuggeleijn interests me because he has pace and has played international cricket," pointed out Fleming about their latest inclusion. "[We] just have to back him. MS [Dhoni] is very supportive. When we bring someone in we look at what skills they bring and try to get the best out of them. The thing we can't understand without working with him is his temperament. We are a little bit thin; there's no doubt about it, so that's why the introduction of Scott is important. We have to work hard; at home we can get away with spinners. We know we have holes and we're just scrapping hard to hide them."

With the kind of form Russell is in, it's absolutely possible that nothing will work. SRH, KXIP, DC and RCB have found that out. And a few more teams will. At the moment, it's all about how good is the execution from the bowlers.

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