IPL 2021: KKR and MI is a story of contrasts
Whatever mantra KKR coach Brendon McCullum and skipper Eoin Morgan read out to the players worked wonderfully
The most riveting story of the IPL’s second phase – till the league matches were completed – is KKR’s remarkable surge to get into the play-offs and defending champion Mumbai Indians’ failure to do so, despite a couple of spectacular attempts at redemption in their last two matches.
When the tournament resumed in the UAE, Mumbai Indians were in the fourth position and KKR in seventh, having won only two from seven matches in the first phase. There was a sense of optimism about Mumbai getting into the last four and nothing but pessimism about the Kolkata team, which had been thoroughly listless earlier. Moreover, pace spearhead Pat Cummins had pulled out too.
Five-time winners Mumbai have in the past come from behind after a sluggish start to take top honours, so there wasn’t much concern about how they would fare in the league stage. In fact, the only speculation was whether they would finish in the top two positions.
KKR have won the title twice, but so poor was their performance in the first phase, hardly anyone – expert or aficionado – believed that they had the wherewithal or self-belief to make the cut. In the three weeks since, things have gone topsy-turvy for both teams.
A revitalized KKR have stormed into the playoffs, winning four matches out of seven in the second phase, while Mumbai — loaded with match-winners — were relegated from the top four, failing to find the sizzling form that usually defines their cricket.
What changed in the period that the IPL was suspended, where these two teams were concerned?
In KKR’s case, there was clear indication of a changed approach and some radical tweaks in the playing XI that helped them. Before the second phase began, coach Brendon McCullum and skipper Eoin Morgan spoke about how the team had been tentative and apprehensive in the first phase, and how this would change in the UAE leg of the tournament.
KKR’s critics thought this was wishful thinking. The top order batting had struggled badly in the first phase. Frequent changes in batting order and personnel hadn’t helped. The bowling too had looked weak and lacking penetration, despite some efforts by Varun Chakravarthy and Prasidh Krishna.
Overall, the performances had been so mediocre, that just talking about a change in approach looked like sandpapering a serious problem. Maybe the talent wasn’t just good enough. Or the balance of the team. Or a combination of these two. Or whatever else.
Such skepticism, however, proved unfounded as KKR started aggressively and finished the league stage with a flourish. The importance of a positive mindset in sport cannot be glossed over. Whatever mantra McCullum and Morgan read out to the players worked wonderfully, and the team looked transformed from the first match they played in this phase.
Apart from shedding pusillanimity, and replacing it with newfound ambition, what helped KKR was also some changes in the team. Venkatesh Iyer turned out to be an inspired choice, batting with flair and fluency. Last season and in the first phase of IPL2021, KKR had been troubled by the top order not delivering enough runs. This time it did, and more importantly consistently so. The top four batsmen scored the bulk of the runs, and all of them were Indian talent, with only Shubman Gill, the international cap. And Gill is not part of the India T20 team. The contributions of Iyer, Gill, Rahul Tripathi and Nitish Rana made up for the horrid streak of Morgan, who could barely put bat to ball, and the bowlers always had a competitive score to defend.
Spinners Chakravarthy and Sunil Narine were in top form, Lockie Ferguson slipped easily into the role of spearhead, Tim Southee and Shakib Al Hasan came good whenever they were included, Shivam Mavi made up for Prasidh’s loss of rhythm, Dinesh Karthik was a livewire in front of the wicket or behind, and over the three-week period, KKR rose from the doldrums into serious contention for the title.
Two matches highlighted KKR’s ambition, zest and skills which brought them into the last four. In the opening match of this phase, they bundled out Royal Challengers Bangalore for a paltry 92, overhauled it easily, got important points, but equally importantly, also improved their Net Run Rate — which was to play such an important role later — substantially.
In their last match in the league stage, KKR thrashed Rajasthan Royals to ensure that all doors would be shut for Mumbai. On a slow Sharjah pitch where other teams had struggled to get 140-145, they notched up a whopping 171, then bowled out RR for 85 to make Mumbai’s attempts to get into the play-offs, an impossible mission.
However, it could also be argued with justification that Mumbai caused their own premature departure from the tournament. All the star players that have made the team the most successful and intimidating in the League were there, but many as caricatures of themselves.
The depth and heft in the team remained on paper and hardly evidenced in the middle. Individually, too many players looked out of touch, which collectively made the team look overburdened with expectations and error-prone — something never associated with MI.
The biggest letdown was in the batting. The star-studded line-up, which has regaled fans and hammered opposing teams, was lukewarm right through. The performance okey-dokey in some matches, but by and large, Mumbai’s problems began from the top of the order, and stretched right through to the tail.
Mumbai bat deep. Apart from Jasprit Bumrah, Trent Boult and Rahul Chahar among the regulars, everyone else has some batting ability. The problem was that those with the best batting credentials were most guilty of under-performing. Skipper Rohit Sharma had a poor time by his own high standards. Suryakumar Yadav and Ishan Kishan, in roaring form in the first half, looked undercooked till the last two matches and that cost the team dearly. Kieron Pollard and Hardik Pandya, the big finishers, were only intermittently threatening.
Mumbai’s best batting performers were Saurabh Tiwary and Quinton de Kock, with neither looking like he could take the team into the playoffs on his own steam. Tiwary, in fact, found a place in the playing XI only because of injury or poor form in the main line-up.
The bowlers were far better in contrast, but overall the attack lacked the sting and edge to make up for the malfunctioning batting consistently. Bumrah was exceptional and had good support from Nathan Coulter-Nile, Jimmy Neesham and Adam Milne and occasionally Pollard, but the spinners Krunal Pandya and Rahul Chahar disappointed on helpful tracks. Hardik Pandya not bowling at all did affect the balance of the team. One supposes he was being preserved for the T20 World Cup which follows, but him not bowling certainly hurt Mumbai. Incidentally, six players from MI — Rohit, Yadav, Ishan, Hardik, Bumrah and Chahar — are in India’s 15-member squad for the WC, and of them only Bumrah looks in form, which will be a source of worry for coach Ravi Shastri and captain Virat Kohli.
So KKR have joined Delhi Capitals, Chennai Super Kings and Royal Challengers Bangalore in the IPL 2021 play-offs. With Delhi and Bangalore never having won the title, one can expect robust efforts from them. However, past winners CSK and KKR have the experience of rising to the big occasion predicting a winner is hazardous.
I’ll stick by the time worn cliche: the team that plays best over the next week, will win.
Ayaz Memon is an Indian sports writer and commentator
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