Champions' resilience tested until the end
Where they finished
Champions. After coming second to Delhi Daredevils in the league stage by one point, Kolkata Knight Riders beat Daredevils in the first playoff to qualify for their maiden final, in Chennai, where they beat Super Kings by five wickets and two balls to spare. Knight Riders won 10 of their last 13 games (one was washed out). They were deserved champions and their campaign a glorious revival.
Gautam Gambhir's pay cheque of $2.4 million, the highest for anyone bought at an open IPL auction, came with a heavy mandate: to turnaround the fortunes of the poorest performing franchise. Knight Riders had been the only constant in the bottom four in each of the first three seasons. Those campaigns were weighed down by a leader past his prime fitness and form, divisive coaching experiments such as split captaincy, and a vicious blogger purporting to be a team insider. So, in the lead-up to the 2011 auction, the Knight Riders management retained none of their players. During the auction, they did not bid for most either, including former icon player Sourav Ganguly. The first name on their new roster was that of Gambhir, after intense bidding involving four other franchises. Under his leadership in 2011, Knight Riders finished fourth.
In 2012, Gambhir was exemplary. As captain, he was patient with under performing players, especially those part of the core group, and with a team that shape shifted several times before arriving at its ideal combination. His leadership conformed to his aggressive character and though he was emotive on the field his team was not adversely affected by it. They were galvanised instead.
As a batsman, Gambhir was Knight Riders' lynchpin and finished with the second highest aggregate of the season. He was their most reliable run-scorer and also their quickest (among those with at least 150 runs), averaging 36.87 at a strike rate of 143.55. Gambhir made six half-centuries and was dismissed in single digits only three times. Before the final he had 588 runs in 16 innings; Kallis was Knight Riders' second best with 340. Gambhir's performance is particularly impressive because the pitches at Eden Gardens were among the most difficult to bat on. They were often slow, with the ball stopping on the batsmen and spinning appreciably. Through his nimble footwork, Gambhir adapted and carried his team's batting for majority of the season.
Considering the million-dollar salaries some franchises paid for under-performing players, buying the future Player of the Tournament for a mere $700,000 was a steal. At the 2012 auction Knight Riders secured Sunil Narine's services after an eyebrow-raising bidding war with Mumbai Indians, who then settled for the South African Robin Peterson a few minutes later. Narine was a little-known Trinidad & Tobago spinner, who had impressed during his brief international career, and it was a testament to Knight Riders' foresight that his mystery sustained through the season. The auction had taken place before Australia's tour of the West Indies, and because Narine was not WICB contracted and the board had given no indication of Test selection, he was free and willing to head to India.
Narine finished the season with 24 wickets in 15 matches at an average of 13.50 and economy rate of 5.47 - the second highest aggregate, the best average for anyone who bowled more than 10 overs, and the second best economy. He conceded more than 30 in a four-over spell only once and went for six an over or fewer ten times. Narine became Gambhir's go-to bowler in a variety of situations - to pull back a bad one or to consolidate a good one. He bowled 16 overs during the fielding restrictions at an economy of 4.50, and in 26.1 overs during the last five of an innings, his economy was only 7. Narine's variations - the sharp offbreak with side spin, the ball that breaks the other way, and the straighter delivery - bowled at tricky pace with a high-arm action that generated bounce were unreadable to even Sachin Tendulkar.
With a purse of $2 million, Knight Riders bought three players during the 2012 auction: Narine, Brendon McCullum for $900,000 and Marchant de Lange for $50,000. The management would have expected more from McCullum, who scored only 289 runs with one half-century in 12 innings at a strike rate of 102. The Eden Gardens pitches were not conducive to McCullum's style of batting. He prefers hard, bouncy surfaces where the ball comes on to the bat, but had to cope with sluggish ones that made timing the ball a challenge. He was still Knight Riders' third highest run-scorer, though, and maintained the balance of the team by keeping wicket. However, with the other wicketkeeper Manvinder Bisla playing a match-winning innings in the final, McCullum will be challenged to keep his spot next season.
Consider these circumstances. Knight Riders had progressed to the final through consistent performances but were suddenly underdogs against a resurgent Chennai Super Kings, who had the home advantage and the momentum. Then L Balaji, who had an economy of 5.40 this season, failed to recover from his hamstring strain, disrupting Knight Riders' settled combination. Without a quality Indian seamer on the bench, they had to bring in Brett Lee and leave out McCullum, which meant Bisla, who had played only one game in the previous month, would keep wicket and open as well.
And then Gambhir lost the toss, Lee got plundered, Narine went for 0 for 37 in his worst performance of the season, Super Kings amassed 190, and Gambhir was dismissed for 2 in the first over of the chase. It could not have got much worse, before Bisla blindsided Super Kings and Jacques Kallis played the perfect foil during a substantial partnership at breakneck pace that won the title for Knight Riders. They were faced with long odds that mounted during the game but had the resilience to beat them.
Perhaps the highlight of Knight Riders' campaign is that they won the tournament with only one match-winning cameo from Yusuf Pathan, who built his reputation on destroyed IPL attacks in seasons past. This year, he scored 40 off 21 balls in the playoff against Daredevils, without which Knight Riders might not have played the final. Apart from that Yusuf failed, with only three 20-plus scores and a strike rate of 115. He did not bowl much either and was expensive when he did - three wickets in 22 overs across 12 innings with an economy of 8.27. For a $2.1 million investment, the returns were meagre, but Knight Riders backed Yusuf until the end.
"It was important to prove to the country that cricket is a team game, and hopefully we've gone some way in doing that," Gambhir said after the final. Through the tournament, when questioned about his or Narine's starring performances, Gambhir took pains to stress the importance of smaller, vital contributions from the others.
Be it Kallis' steady batting combined with vital breakthroughs with the ball; Balaji's prodigious seam movement which earned him the best economy rate of the tournament; the triumvirate of spinners, which included Shakib Al Hasan and Iqbal Abdulla, and Rajat Bhatia who operated with control; or the nuggety middle-order contributions that raised the total by 10-15 runs, Gambhir acknowledged them all. Without them, his and Narine's efforts would have been in vain, like Chris Gayle and AB de Villiers' were for Royal Challengers Bangalore. Knight Riders had most of their squad pulling in the right direction for most of the tournament and that made all the difference.
George Binoy is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo