You don't need the rest of the words to guess what Brendon McCullum was getting at. In his pep talk to the Kolkata Knight Riders squad ahead of the UAE leg, all he wanted from his players was to imagine the stories they'd get to tell if they turned a corner and went on to win the trophy from where they were at — a disappointing seventh on the points table, with only 2 wins in 7 games. While it remains to be seen whether KKR indeed goes on to have a fairytale finish, the stories behind how they made the IPL final must no longer wait.
How KKR turned a corner
A lot of things clicked for KKR in the UAE, starting from their intention to play an extra batsman at the cost of a domestic pacer and use Andre Russell as a four-over bowler. Earlier during the India leg, Russell was primarily used as a batting all-rounder, called upon to bowl the last few overs, if at all. But that approach hadn't quite worked for KKR who looked short on batting depth and tempo. So against Royal Challengers Bangalore in Abu Dhabi, out went Shivam Mavi and in came Venkatesh Iyer, an explosive left-handed batsman who could also trundle in and bowl a couple of overs of the seam.
Iyer had come in with runs behind him. In the 2020-21 Syed Mushtaq Ali Trophy, he tallied 227 runs in 5 games, making them at a strike-rate of 149, and followed it up with a 146-ball 198 in the Vijay Hazare Trophy. And that form and experience reflected in Iyer's 27-ball 41 on debut. Not only did he restore the left-hand-right-hand batting combination at the top but also seemed to have brought a flexible style of play, allowing Shubman Gill to comfortably go through his gears at the other end. It is more than shown in KKR's nine-wicket win over RCB that came with 10 overs to spare.
A big win gave KKR's campaign the much-needed impetus early in the UAE leg while a settled opening combination added a sense of constancy to the line-up, that hitherto had to be chopped and changed in trial and error. As a result, KKR went unchanged into the next two games against bigwigs Mumbai Indians and Chennai Super Kings, beating the former while losing to the latter, but two wins in the first three games still made for the kind of positive start that McCullum had asked for in his pep talk on KKR's YouTube channel.
Russell's hamstring injury ahead of the clash against Delhi Capitals threatened to derail the campaign but the overseas players who came in as replacements stood up when it mattered. Tim Southee ended up playing three games in total, first coming in as a replacement for Russell but staying on for the injured Lockie Ferguson. Now without their two first-choice overseas players for three straight games, KKR still managed to beat the odds and win two out of those games. Against SunRisers Hyderabad, Southee stood up with 2 for 26 and helped KKR secure two crucial points as the middle of the table heated up.
While Southee was a passing arrangement, it was the re-introduction of Shakib Al Hasan and Shivam Mavi into the bowling attack that had a more lasting impact. Mavi came in after KKR had tried both Prasidh Krishna and Sandeep Warrier in the UAE and the 22-year-old fast bowler impressed immediately with his ability to hit the hard lengths consistently. Shakib was brought into the side “to improve the balance on the all-round front” after a loss to Punjab Kings and the all-rounder seamlessly fit into the bowling attack and perhaps even made it better.
Until Shakib came back into the mix in the UAE, KKR had mostly been bowling eight overs of spin and 12 overs of pace, with an over here and there from Nitish Rana or Iyer as and when needed. But the addition of Shakib came in with four overs of bonafide spin that were priceless on pitches that were getting slower and slower towards the business end of the tournament. And KKR was lucky to get three games on the bounce in Sharjah, the slowest and lowest venue of them all.
KKR's familiarity with Sharjah came in handy in the Eliminator against Royal Challengers Bangalore and in Qualifier 2 against Delhi Capitals. Both games followed a rather similar pattern, with KKR bowling first, using spin to strangulate the opposition's batsmen in the middle overs, and then chasing the runs down with some help from the dew. Their batsmen also hit 25 sixes in 4 games as opposed to 10 by the opposition, cleverly using the smallest boundaries on offer in the UAE to offset the difficult batting conditions in the middle.
KKR in Sharjah:
With that in mind, it's slightly surprising that KKR had come into Sharjah with three defeats in three games last year, and perhaps fearing that the venue is going to put paid to their qualification hopes this time too. As it turns out, the four games in Sharjah couldn't have gone better.
“It's unheard of what he's actually done here,” KKR mentor David Hussey said of head coach McCullum. “It's remarkable. We were seventh in the table, not playing great cricket and he's just turned it around, he's given everybody a fresh lease of life, freshening up the place. Everybody's happy, everybody's smiling, and he should take a lot of credit. I know he won't because he's a very humble man but he should take a lot of credit for what he's been able to accomplish in this part of the IPL.
“I think the break at the halfway start of the IPL definitely helped, but I truly believe that Morgan's captaining really well. He's marshaling the troops, he's tactically very clever. The bowling changes have been spot on. I think that's contributed to our success this time around. And Venkatesh Iyer, we have discussed him before. He is just a class player at the top, he's a tall Stephen Fleming clone I believe. He's got a big future in the game and he's a quality person.”
Perhaps the only concern for Hussey and McCullum going into the final will be the form of Dinesh Karthik and Eoin Morgan, both of whom registered ducks on Wednesday (October 13) and continue to have a poor season with the bat. In fact, the slide in Morgan's batting positions, from fourth to sixth, and even seventh in one of the games, perfectly captures the pandemonium in the middle order and remains the last piece of the puzzle that KKR has to crack.