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Cricket news - Dispirited KKR's downward spiral

Russell single-handedly carried the weight of the team on his shoulders

It was an unravelling of sorts for the Kolkata Knight Riders. After a strong start to the season, not just will this be the first time since 2015 that they will not feature in the playoffs of the Indian Premier League, but the discord in their camp was out there for all to see.

In a rare display of emotion, Dinesh Karthik was seen animatedly lambasting his side against Kings XI Punjab during the time-out, Andre Russell took to the press to call out his side's bad decision-making and term them the "worst fielding team so far", and the overall body language was of those of men, not in the ideal state of mind to emerge victorious on a cricket field.

Four wins in the first five games to kick-off the season and KKR were soaring at the top of the table. Thereafter, they lost six games on a trot which derailed their campaign. They could manage only two wins thereafter to end the season on a rather dismal note. That said, as things turned out, they did have a chance to claim a spot in the top four in their last league game against the Mumbai Indians.

But on D-day, a first-ball duck for Andre Russell - their top-scorer for the season - meant they ended up with a mediocre score that Mumbai chased down rather comfortably to draw curtains on KKR's season.

It was a season to forget for KKR, much to the disappointment of their ardent home fans, who got to witness only three wins in seven games at the Eden Gardens this time around. They looked understaffed last year with just a squad of 19, but punched above their weight, finishing third when they were not even given a chance to begin with. This season, they looked solid on paper, with a top seven that could bat any opposition out of the contest on their day. Unfortunately, such days were few and far between.

What worked for them?

Andre Russell.

If KKR had four wins in their first five games, three of those at least belonged solely to Russell. He single-handedly carried the weight of the team on his shoulders, rescuing them game after game from sticky situations to take them over the line. Although his batting position came under debate 'n' number of times through the season given the failure of KKR's top order to fire consistently, Russell, more often than not got the work done without much assistance from the other end. That explains his numbers of 510 runs in 14 innings, averaging 56.66 and striking at 204.81, with his only single-digit score coming in the final league game against MI. He also struck the maximum number of sixes in the tournament, belting as many as 52.

What pulled them back?

The failure of their spin trio

Their much vaunted spin trio of Kuldeep Yadav, Sunil Narine and Piyush Chawal was disappointing to say the least, with their pacers a shade better. Not just did the trio fail to strike to peg oppositions back, but leaked runs, on an Eden surface that had little assistance for spinners. Yet, they persisted with them for most part, until dropping Kuldeep in the latter half for the last five games due to an alarming loss in form. Kuldeep picked just four wickets in nine matches this season, at 71.5 and economy rate of 8.66, with his last over this year having ended in tears after being clobbered by Moeen Ali. Narine was economical, but found form only in the latter half with 10 wickets in 12 games. Chawla was the pick of the three, with his wily ways in the powerplay to keep oppositions in check.

What did they sorely miss?

Lack of runs at the top

Chris Lynn made a slow start, finding form as the tournament went on, finishing with 404 for the season. Sunil Narine was the only other batsman with a strike-rate in excess of 150, but he struggled with form through the season, and thus the lack of a strong opening partnership put pressure on an uncertain middle order. They missed a trick by playing Shubman Gill much later in the line-up. When promoted up, he beamed with brilliance, being hard to contain. Uthappa and Karthik failed to click together while Rana chipped in with scores, but after the initial burst, none were substantial enough. Eventually, KKR were found one too many times banking on Russell to bail them out. The day he did, it was all smiles. Else, no points.

Signing of the season

Harry Gurney

While KKR didn't have a standout player among those they signed up for the season, Harry Gurney could make the cut. His smart variations complemented by his slingy action had him see a fair bit of success in his maiden season in what was otherwise a disappointing bowling tournament for KKR. His accuracy too worked to his advantage as he finished the season with seven wickets in eight games at 34.

What's on the highlights reel?

Russell's exploits of opposition ranks

It was not one game, but almost every other game that Russell found himself in the middle, big hitting was rest assured. He single-handedly dismantled attacks and created fear in the opposition ranks. The particular game against RCB at the Chinnaswamy Stadium was a prime example. Russell smashed seven sixes and a four in 13 balls to power KKR to an improbable victory with them needing 67 off 26 balls. And that, with five balls to spare. His unbeaten 48 came at an unbelievable strike rate of 369.23, as KKR chased down a score of over 200 with the hosts' bowlers faltering at the sight of Russell.

On a scale of 1 to 10...

Auction and retention strategy - 4/10

KKR were in danger of not having enough players to even comprise of a squad going into the auction, but they did in the end with some buys - major ones being Lockie Ferguson and Carlos Brathwaite. They retained their core group from last year, with a very stable looking line-up with familiar faces through and through. What was also advantageous to them was the safety of not losing their new recruits to World Cup preparations. Yet, while their starting XI looked as formidable a side as any, it was the bench strength that was a bit of a concern.

They were pegged back by injuries to the young pair of Kamlesh Nagarkoti and Shivam Mavi, who were ruled out of the entire season due to injuries. Subsequently, South African pacer Anrich Nortje, who was bought for 20 lakh, was ruled out with a shoulder injury too. They picked Ferguson and Harry Gurney to boost their pace department after having parted ways with Mitchell Starc and Mitchell Johnson, who went unsold in the auction, in the lead-up to the season. While their approach was right, the failure in deliverance cost them. There were smart buys in Joe Denly and Brathwaite, who have proven their prowess in T20 cricket, but neither got a long rope. In the end, the decision to release eight players including Starc, Johnson, Vinay Kumar and Tom Curran, came back to hurt them, leaving them with little bench strength.

Batting output - 6/10

A major blip in strategy was to have left Russell too late in the batting order. In all, he ended up facing just 249 balls in the season, despite having been their best batsman from game one. Robin Uthappa, who scored 282 runs, but at a strike-rate of just 115, and Dinesh Karthik (253 runs) having mediocre seasons didn't help either. Uthappa seemed completely out of depth, and was even dropped mid-season, only to be brought back eventually. But that didn't do them any good either.

After Lynn began to find form at the top, he couldn't find a steady hand to accelerate the innings, leaving the lower-middle order with the opportunity to come in and tee off. However, in Lynn and Gill, they found an opening pair that delivered, but it came too late in the tournament. Gill was wasted down the order, but when he got his chances at the top, he scored 76 against Mumbai and built on it with an unbeaten 65 against Punjab.

Bowling prowess - 4/10

Although, on paper, KKR's bowling unit seemed capable of defending scores and containing oppositions, in reality, it was arguably one of the weakest. Handed the task of defending a total seven times this season, they only managed twice - both times with targets over 200. Their persistence of a spin-heavy composition on wickets assisting pace, resulted in the failure of their regular spinners, who they would regard as their strength.

Their pace attack was once again led by Russell, who was their highest wicket-taker with 11. Lockie Ferguson and Prasidh Krishna didn't ruffle oppositions at all or cause them much worry, but for Sandeep Warrier. Roped in as a replacement for Nagarkoti, he was impressive with his control and accuracy in the three games that he played.

Overall performance - 5/10

KKR began as favourites to at least make the top four, and with four wins in five games, they seemed on track. However, a collective failure in batting, bowling and fielding, compounded by the disharmony in the dressing room, has left them with a sour taste, wrapping up one of their more disappointing seasons.

Is 2019 an improvement on 2018?

No. If their off-field issues weren't glaring and, that they didn't make the playoffs after three years of doing so will have hurt them.

What next then?

KKR can take back a lot from the season. Mainly, the importance of playing Gill at the top. A lot of their batting woes could have been averted had they stuck with Gill at the top when he first scored a fifty in Narine's absence against Delhi Capitals. They need a better auction strategy, not letting off key players, who can be potential match-winners on their day, without a solid like-for-like replacement. They also need an all-rounder who can complement Russell, taking the pressure off him in the middle order. The pace department needs injection of some venom who can strike early, which can turn things around for a side, as seen with RCB on the addition of Dale Steyn. Whether or not they will persist with Uthappa for the next season will be interesting to see.

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