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Cricket news - Rana-Tripathi show ticks major box for KKR

Rana's partnerships with Gill and Tripathi gave KKR a solid start in their 2021 season opener.

Rana's partnerships with Gill and Tripathi gave KKR a solid start in their 2021 season opener.

Ever since Kolkata Knight Riders acquired Eoin Morgan, their swashbuckling middle order was always billed as their biggest strength. Having Morgan at 4 followed by Dinesh Karthik and Andre Russell did instil fear in the opposition and this year they elongated that middle order further with Shakib Al Hasan's addition. But throughout IPL 2020, laying down an ideal platform for the famed intimidating middle order proved to be a problem.

The lack of fruitful partnerships or sedate starts in terms of run rate either left them needing too much to get or put them in delicate scenarios in terms of rebuilding. Sunil Narine's shortcomings were found out pretty quick which put an end to that opening experiment, Rahul Tripathi showed promise but was largely inconsistent and Shubman Gill's strike rate caused concerns. Last year, only once did KKR have a powerplay without losing a wicket and only once did their openers raise fifty without any damage. No wonder they didn't make it past the league stage.

However, they did show signs of finally fixing their opening combination when Nitish Rana swapped spots with Tripathi by the fag end of the tournament last year. In those last four games, Rana registered a couple of scores in the 80s and a couple of first-ball ducks, showing he has enough in his armoury to nail down his spot as Gill's opening partner. The real challenge was to carry that forward into the new season and lay down an early marker. And he certainly did that in style.

Morgan's first full season as skipper in the IPL promised some excitement in terms of the England captain inculcating the brand of cricket that helped him lift the 2019 World Cup. Those signs were evident when Rana creamed the very first ball of the game through the covers to get going. One of the most underrated performers in the IPL in recent years, Rana is a clever customer as he picked his bowlers to perfection on the night. Sandeep Sharma was subjected to some harsh treatment the moment he couldn't find swing and the shorter leg-side boundary was targeted whenever spin was thrown at him. Hat-trick of boundaries against Sandeep saw KKR race to 33 off just four overs and by the time the powerplay came to an end, that opening duo had already added 50. For a side that had registered it's lowest total ever in the powerplay (17/4) last year, this was indeed a welcome change.

Even Gill, who had copped a fair amount of criticism for his approach last season, lofted T Natarajan of all people for a six over the bowler's head signalling his intentions. His dismissal in the seventh over did little to halt KKR's progress as Tripathi smashed a six off his second ball. Call it Morgan's imprint or the Brendan McCullum influence, a welcome change was unfolding. Whenever Rashid Khan operated though, the batsmen were content being watchful while targeting the rest. By the end of the 14th over, Rashid and Bhuvneshwar Kumar combined had only conceded 27 runs in five overs whereas the rest were taken apart for 99 runs in 9 overs.

Rana's deft wristwork and power were on display on Sunday as he hit a six each off three successive overs at one stage. Here was a man diagnosed with COVID-19 just a few days before the tournament taking on an attack widely considered the best in the league. As his skipper pointed out after the game, the left-hander truly made the pitch look better than what it was. "I think the thing that impressed me the most about his innings was the method he used," Morgan said. "He played really aggressively and always took a positive option which really did set up our innings. His game is in really good touch. We witnessed that today. A wicket that was probably not good as he made it to look, we are delighted for him."

Rana wasn't the only one to impress Morgan on the night. Consistency or the lack of it has been the story of Tripathi's career so far. Ever since his successful debut season in the IPL with the now-defunct RPS, Tripathi has never managed to average more than 25. Last year, it had come down to 23. But that never perturbed the swashbuckling batsman. Not bothered about holding on to his spot, Tripathi executed the team plan to perfection coming in at the fall of Gill's wicket. Going toe-to-toe with his batting partner, Tripathi at one stage managed to usurp Rana in terms of strike rate when he took on Bhuvneshwar towards the end. A six over cow corner followed by two boundaries brought up a 28-ball fifty. 145 runs were on the board without any contribution whatsoever from those middle order bigwigs.

Even though SRH did stage a late fightback with the ball, the onslaught for the major part of the innings had already caused enough damage for them to end up on the losing side. By Morgan's own admission, Rana and Gill are the 'two most talented guys in the country'. One of them has registered his third 80-plus score in his last five IPL games. If the other one can breach the 400-run mark again this season, albeit at a much better strike rate than the one he had in IPL 2020 (117.96), this batting lineup will be in a completely different space to where it was just five months ago.

With Tripathi expected to never back down from his approach, KKR certainly have three batsmen at the top of the order they can bank upon. Shakib's infusion should provide them more cover at number 7 in case there is a need to arrest a collapse. Even though these are early days, a major box has indeed been ticked by KKR in their quest towards that elusive third title.