After a remarkable passage in the second phase, Kolkata Knight Riders are one match away from writing the final chapter of an extraordinary story. Seventh in the points tally when the second leg resumed in the UAE, KKR overturned their listless form of the first phase to notch up seven wins out of nine matches and qualify to meet Chennai Super Kings in the final.
Two of these seven wins came in the playoffs — the eliminator against Royal Challengers Bangalore followed by the second qualifier against Delhi Capitals on Wednesday. Both these were last-over finishes, requiring grit and nerve from KKR players — individually and collectively — to overcome tight situations in the tense matches.
In Wednesday’s qualifier against Delhi Capitals, who incidentally had finished top of the league table, Rahul Tripathi showed tremendous gumption to finish the match with a rousing six off R Ashwin, after a sensational middle-order collapse had left KRR on the verge of defeat.
These are tell-tale signs of a team which is well endowed with talent for different situations and is playing with a strong sense of purpose and self-belief. Examine KKR’s performances in the second phase and virtually every player has made crucial contributions along the way to create and maintain the winning momentum over the three weeks.
This will not be lost on M S Dhoni and CSK. The threat is from everyone. The only KKR player who hasn’t been in form is captain Eoin Morgan, who, in fact, is going through the horrors. But Morgan has been exceptional as captain, making clever and bold changes as the occasions demanded, inspiring his players to give off their best.
The stand out performers for KKR have been openers Venkatesh Iyer and Shubman Gill, spinners Narine, Varun Chakravarthy and Shakib Al Hasan, pace bowler Lockie Ferguson. Swashbuckling Iyer has been a revelation, Gill has hit peak form approaching the final, Ferguson’s sharp pace and subtle variations have more than covered up for Pat Cummins’ absence. But most worrisome for the opponents has been the spin troika.
Shakib, Narine and Chakravarthy have bowled with superb control and guile, constantly probing batsmen, giving little away. Against RCB, the three conceded only 65 runs from 12 overs, against DC it was 80 from 12. It’s not just the economy rate, they picked up a bagful of wickets too, leaving the batting side tied in knots.
Tackling these spinners, especially if the pitch plays slow, will be the big task for CSK’s batting, which has frankly been lopsided and heavily dependent on Ruturaj Gaikwad and Faf du Plessis. Both have scored prolifically, but whenever they’ve been dismissed early, CSK have suffered.
Robin Uthappa played a good hand in the qualifier against Delhi to go with Gaikwad’s sterling half-century, but CSK haven’t got the runs they would have expected from Ambati Rayudu, Suresh Raina (unlikely to play) and Moeen Ali. Dhoni smoked a six-ball 18 against DC, but that has been about the only thing of note with the bat.
Even in the bowling, KKR’s attack has more variety and has been more potent, at the start, in the middle and death overs. With so many players in form, KKR appear a better-rounded team than CSK going into this match. Also, CSK had lost three matches on the trot before the last-over win against DC in the qualifier. KKR, on the other hand, have had a string of four consecutive wins before this final.
These stats would suggest the momentum is with KKR. They’ve also shown themselves to be the side with the greatest hunger to win in the second phase, which is why they are in the final, having beaten heavy odds. But how pertinent will all this be in the final is moot. CSK have an array of players with rich experience, a steady dug-out and an iconic captain with a litany of stellar wins behind him.
KKR have won the title twice earlier, the last time in 2014. They’ve never lost a final. CSK are thrice title winners and are in the final for the ninth time. The final promises to be a humdinger.
Ayaz Memon is an Indian sports writer and commentator
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