Kolkata Knight Riders (KKR), two-time IPL Champions (2012 and 2014), and four-time playoff participants, (in 2011, 2016, 2017 and 2018 editions) will be eyeing a third shot at the title, this time far far away from home, as the 13th edition of the cash-rich T20 league is happening in the UAE after being shifted from India.
While the Dinesh Karthik-led unit will have to get used to 'Bio-Bubble', 'Mandatory Coronavirus Tests', 'Isolation' in Post-COVID World' and playing matches sans crowd support, they will also be up against the demon named 'inconsistency', which cost them a playoff spot last year despite them winning the first four of their five games.
This time around, KKR, owned by Bollywood actors Shah Rukh Khan and Juhi Chawla, has reinvigorated their overseas contingent by inducting England opener Tom Banton, along with Aussie bowling spearhead Pat Cummins and 2019 World Cup-winning English skipper Eoin Morgan.
They also managed to retain the Indian core of Shubman Gill, Nitish Rana, Kamlesh Nagarkoti, Prasidh Krishna, Shivam Mavi and Kuldeep Yadav, while adding leg-spinner Praveen Tambe (IPL's oldest player), Mumbai all-rounder Siddhesh Lad and Maharashtra opener Rahul Tripathi.
Dinesh Karthik (C), Eoin Morgan, Shubman Gill, Nitish Rana, Nikhil Naik, Rinku Singh, Andre Russell, Sunil Narine, Shivam Mavi, Kuldeep Yadav, Kamlesh Nagarkoti, Prasidh Krishna, Lockie Ferguson, Ali Khan, Pat Cummins, Tom Banton, Siddhesh Lad, Rahul Tripathi, Praveen Tambe, Chris Green, Maniraman Siddharth, Sandeep Warrier, Varun Chakravarthy.
Brendon McCullum (Head Coach)
Abhishek Nayar (Assistant Coach)
David Hussey (Mentor)
Carl Crowe (Spin Bowling Coach)
Kyle Mills (Fast Bowling Coach)
James Foster (Fielding Coach)
Kamlesh Jain (Physio)
Chris Donaldson (Strength and Condition Coach)
AR Srikkanth (Data and Video analyst)
The dynamic Windies duo:
KKR's ace in the pack is their Caribbean all-rounder Andre Russell, renowned for his big-hitting abilities. After making a headline-grabbing debut for KKR in the 2014 edition of the now-defunct Champions League T20 and smashing a 25-ball 58 to win his team a difficult encounter against the Chennai Super Kings, Russell continued to hog headlines with his superhuman batting skills across T20 franchise tournaments.
The 31-year-old has scored over 2000 runs in more than 120 matches, with a strike rate ranging between 140-190. He has made the death overs his forte with his beastly six-hitting spree earning him the nickname 'Russell Muscle'.
So much has his impact on the shortest format of the game been that KKR mentor David Hussey has pitched for Russell to be promoted to the top of the batting order. With 222 runs in nine matches in the recently concluded Caribbean Premier League, he also looks in prime shape to terrorise the bowlers all over again.
Sunil Narine, who was part of KKR's victorious campaigns in 2012 and 2014, will be leading his team's bowling attack this time around too. With UAE surfaces traditionally being on the slower side and offering quite a good amount of assistance to the spinners, the 32-year-old, who has over 170 wickets in more than 160 T20s, will be Karthik's key go-to bowler once again.
Narine, who was touted nine years ago as a 'mystery spinner' when he burst onto the international scene, isn't anywhere near as unplayable anymore due to a series of ICC sanctions and subsequent changes in his bowling action. Still, his ability to bowl in powerplay and death overs with an economy rate of just around seven runs per over shows that he is no pushover either.
Also, his big-hitting skills (771 runs in 57 innings with a strike rate near 169) in the last three years as an opener has helped KKR get brisk starts in powerplay overs.
In CPL 2020, he was able to take only six scalps in five games at an economy rate below five for tournament champions Trinbago Knight Riders.
Morgan, Banton and Cummins give KKR much-required balance:
Eoin Morgan, the face of England's limited-overs revolution since 2015 that ultimately made them the 50-over World Cup champion last year, will be returning to KKR after nine years. The 34-year-old will be another vital cog in the franchise's leadership group.
With 2240 runs in 94 international T20s at a strike rate of 138.96 and 854 runs in 52 IPL games at a strike rate of 121.13, there is no doubt that he is a capable middle-order batsman who can also anchor the innings, something KKR was missing badly in last two seasons. Apart from his sharp fielding skills, he can also come in handy with his street-smart cricketing brain during pressure moments.
Tom Banton, the 21-year-old Somerset top-order batsman, burst onto the international cricket in the November 2019 tour of New Zealand. The latest addition to England's list of explosive limited-overs' batters, he has more than 1200 runs in his kitty in 49 T20s altogether, with some of them coming in the Big Bash League and Pakistan Super League at a strike rate of over 150.
His tally of 137 runs in the recently concluded three-match T20 series against Pakistan not only repaid the England team management's faith in him, but also helped him to replace Jos Buttler as Jonny Bairstow's opening partner. Banton will be one of the dark horses to watch out for in IPL 2020, and KKR will hope that he along with Rahul Tripathi can give its batting line-up more firepower at the top.
Pat Cummins, the Aussie pace spearhead, who returns to KKR after six years after being bought for Rs 15.5 crores in the auction last year, will add much-needed teeth to the franchise's inexperienced bowling attack. Despite the fact that he has just 17 wickets in his kitty in 16 IPL games at an economy rate of almost nine runs per over, Cummins' makeover in 2017 as a vicious fast bowler makes him a MVP (Most Valuable Player) for any franchise, provided he remains fit.
While KKR already has Kiwi pacer Lockie Ferguson in their pace arsenal, Cummins's inclusion gives the franchise's new-ball attack a little more respect. This should help a side who struggled in the 2019 season to defend 170-plus totals more than once.
Karthik and Shubman provide a strong Indian batting core:
KKR skipper Dinesh Karthik is one of the IPL's all-time prolific Indian batters with 3654 runs in 182 games at a strike rate and an average of 129.8 and 27.07 respectively.
The veteran wicketkeeper-batsman, who represented Team India in their 2007 T20 World Cup and 2013 Champions Trophy wins and played for franchises like Delhi and Mumbai in the past, is famous for his eight-ball 29 in the 2018 Nidahas Trophy final in Colombo, which has earned a permanent place in Indian cricket folklore. His ability to deliver some nasty, unconventional blows in the death overs makes him an automatic choice for any franchise.
With MS Dhoni already retired, IPL 2020 gives the 35-year-old Tamil Nadu cricketer the chance to play some utility knocks and throw his hat in the ring for a Team India slot for the 2021 T20 World Cup.
Shubman Gill, often touted as the 'next big thing' of Indian cricket, hasn't been able to find his mojo in IPL till now after a brilliant U-19 World Cup 2018. The Punjab youngster has scored only 499 runs in 27 IPL matches at an average of 33.27 and a strike rate of 132.36. He was mainly used as a floater in the last two seasons for KKR, despite him being a top-order batsman.
With his former teammate Robin Uthappa moving to Rajasthan Royals this year, Gill has the golden opportunity to fill the number three slot. Even head coach McCullum saying that Gill will be part of the team's leadership group only suggests the youngster may finally get the big break that he has long been waiting for.
Russell a weak link too?
Despite being more than handy with the ball since 2012 IPL (55 wickets in 64 games), the familiar sight of Russell backing out from the bowling run-up due to stiff leg muscle or not completing his four overs' quota due to repeated hamstring injuries may prevent Kolkata from using his pace to unsettle the opponents in the middle overs.
While he has often given Karthik and co crucial breakthroughs in big matches, the team management's words of using him as a batting option this year mean the franchise might have the headache of finding a regular fifth bowling option. Considering the overall inexperience in the KKR ranks, this doesn't look an easy job.
Lack of depth in the spin department:
One of the key highlights of IPL 2020 auctions last year was veteran leg-spinner Piyush Chawla's departure from KKR after six years of serving them with bat and ball (including a match-winning cameo at the 2014 edition final). The 31-year-old warhorse's impressive record of 150 scalps in 157 matches at an economy rate of 7.82 ensured that he will become the most expensive capped Indian player and represent MS Dhoni's Chennai Super Kings in UAE.
Now the onus will completely be on 25-year-old Chinaman spinner Kuldeep Yadav. While the left-arm spinner has been outfoxing the batting line-ups since his international debut in 2017 and has an equally impressive wickets column for KKR (39 wickets in 40 games), his barren run last year, where he could manage only four wickets in nine matches and during which he even went for a 27-run over against RCB in Eden Gardens, raises questions about his ability to fill in Chawla's shoes.
With inexperienced names like Maniraman Siddharth and Varun Chakravarthy filling the Indian quota, the job of dismantling opposition batting line-ups looks rather challenging for KKR even on the UAE surfaces that are expected to be overused, low and slow.
Questions around Karthik's captaincy:
While the veteran Indian wicketkeeper-batsman has already proven his worth for KKR as a batsman, it's his leadership skills that will be under the scanner again.
Karthik managed to take his team to the play-offs of the 2018 edition when they fell agonisingly short of setting up a final date against CSK, but he was completely listless as the franchise fell flat in the league stage last year, despite winning four of their first five games.
He also ended up making matters worse by implementing too many chamges in the playing XI. The situation was so bad that he even had to endure public criticism from Russell. This time around, whether KKR fans will see their skipper's 2018-like inspirational avatar will be the million-dollar question.
With some expensive overseas buys in the last auction, the franchise will for sure like to see their faith in the veteran Indian cricketer being rewarded with some solid team performances.
While the Kolkata-based franchise has some match-winners and solid cricketing brains in its ranks to challenge the other seven teams during the UAE campaign, a weak bowling attack may discourage the experts from projecting Karthik and co as one of the favourites. But if they avoid major injury issues and their squad stays stable, they can be a playoff contender.
Dinesh Karthik (C)
Vs Mumbai Indians on September 23, 7:30 PM, Venue-Abu Dhabi.
vs Sunrisers Hyderabad on September 26, 7:30 PM, Venue-Abu Dhabi.
Vs Rajasthan Royals on September 30, 7:30 PM, Venue-Dubai.
Vs Delhi Capitals on October 3, 7.30 PM, Venue-Sharjah.
vs Chennai Super Kings on October 7, 7.30 PM, Venue-Abu Dhabi.
Vs Kings XI Punjab on October 10, 3:30 PM, Venue-Abu Dhabi.
Vs Royal Challengers Bangalore on October 12, 7.30 PM, Venue-Sharjah.
Vs Mumbai Indians on October 16, 7.30 PM, Venue-Abu Dhabi.
Vs Sunrisers Hyderabad on October 18, 3.30 PM, Venue-Abu Dhabi.
Vs Royal Challengers Bangalore on October 21, 7.30 PM, Venue-Abu Dhabi.
Vs Delhi Capitals on October 24, 3:30 PM, Venue-Abu Dhabi.
Vs Kings XI Punjab on October 26, 7.30 PM, Venue-Sharjah.
Vs Chennai Super Kings on October 29, 7.30 PM, Venue-Dubai.
Vs Rajasthan Royals on November 1, 7.30 PM, Venue-Dubai.