A turnaround built on hurt, belief and a strong leader
On May 5, Kolkata Knight Riders were cruising to victory against Rajasthan Royals in Ahmedabad: they were 121 for 0 and needed 50 in six overs. Gautam Gambhir's dismissal, however, triggered one of the worst collapses in the IPL. Six wickets tumbled for two runs and Knight Riders eventually lost by 10. It was their fourth successive loss and their fifth in seven matches.
In the dressing room, no one spoke but there was no recrimination. People were angry but did not lose hope. "Everyone was hurting bad," Robin Uthappa, the Knight Riders batsman, says. "It was a morose atmosphere. Everyone's self respect was hurt. We could see it in every player's eyes: each wanted to play for his own pride and wanted to make the most in every subsequent match. There was a different energy post that defeat." Uthappa finished the IPL wearing the Orange Cap given to the tournament's highest run-maker.
Vijay Dahiya, one of Knight Riders' assistant coaches, remembers the defeat as a huge disappointment. "It was unacceptable. I would be lying if I don't say it was a big, huge disappointment. I remember Trevor Bayliss (head coach) saying it was good to see players hurting. They were angry that they could not finish it. That shows the character of this team."
Dahiya says it was not a case of the opposition winning convincingly; Knight Riders who were not playing smart cricket. A week before the Ahmedabad collapse, they had lost to Royals in Abu Dhabi, where they had needed 16 off 12 balls with six wickets in hand before tying the game and the Super Over but going down on boundary count.
"Nobody was willing to leave it for the other guy from then onwards," Dahiya says about the 6 for 2 debacle.
Joy Bhattacharjya, the team manager, says Knight Riders did not let the pressure get to them, even when they had to win six of their last seven matches to qualify for the playoffs. The players did not look too far ahead.
"The best part of the story would be the team stayed calm throughout," Bhattacharjya says. "It was always about the next match. If we win it, we have a chance. It was never about the tournament. KKR kept it shape despite pressure."
Knight Riders did not fall over even when on the edge of the precipice. Instead they bounced back with a record nine-match winning streak, all the way to the title.
Like all teams, Knight Riders had also started their campaign at the player auction in February. They had a well-defined strategy. Venky Mysore, their chief executive officer, says the focus was to create a strong stable of bowlers with emphasis on buying high-quality Indians.
Legspinner Piyush Chawla, and fast bowlers Vinay Kumar and Umesh Yadav, were bought to complement overseas players such as West Indies spinner Sunil Narine, South African quick Morne Morkel, Bangladesh allrounder Shakib Al Hasan and young Australian quick Pat Cummings. "All of these people have played at the international level so they have the experience, skill and temperament to perform under pressure," Mysore says. "And that is why it was not a case of hell for leather with us chasing big totals."
The success of those selections, Mysore says, can be gauged from the consistency of the Knight Riders attack, which almost always restricted the opposition to a manageable target. "The one common thread in all matches, even in the five games we lost, we contained the opposition which put us in a position to win."
Despite the pervading influence of technology in the sport, cricket is a lot about communication between people, about man-management. Mysore says one of the biggest factors behind Knight Riders winning their second title was the return of Wasim Akram, who had been absent from the coaching staff in the 2013 season.
"He is a tremendous influence on the team. We missed him last year," Mysore says. "I have to come to the conclusion that ultimately it is about being in the right frame of mind, creating the right environment and creating opportunities for conversations. When someone can facilitate it with integrity and credibility it goes a long way. Someone like Wasim is very unique: anybody from a youngest member like Kuldeep Yadav, who follows him around everywhere, to a great player like Jacques Kallis, who could have a one-on-one conversation, can easily strike a conversation with him."
Leaders have always been the fulcrum of champion IPL teams - Shane Warne, Adam Gilchrist, MS Dhoni, and Gautam Gambhir in 2012. When Knight Riders retained Gambhir, questions were raised because he was not part of the Indian team anymore. Mysore and his think tank, however, believed in Gambhir, in his hunger and leadership.
That faith was tested immediately, when Gambhir began the season with three consecutive ducks and Knight Riders lost more than they won. It looked ominous from the outside but within the team no one was perturbed. "To conclude he [Gambhir] was not in form when he had just faced five or six balls is not fair at all," Mysore says.
The highlight for Mysore was how Gambhir did not let his slump affect his leadership. "I never saw any difference in the way he approached the game, the way he led the side, the conversations he had during team meetings," Mysore says. "I do not see him taking pressure on his captaincy by virtue of his batting - whether he is doing well or not doing well. That was a big thing."
Yusuf Pathan, a senior player at Knight Riders and a three-time IPL winner, is of the same opinion. "He never let his bad form in the first four matches have any effect on the team. That is a very big thing," Yusuf says. "If a batsman gets out without scoring runs it is easy to get irritated, but he never let that have any impact on his captaincy and the team. He has been a champion in the past and he always held that belief. A good captain can make the team stand out and take it to a different level. Gautam has done that at KKR."
Yusuf also had a lot of critics after his bad form from last season continued into the early stages of 2014. He managed to turn it around, though, and struck the fastest fifty of the IPL in Knight Riders' final league match, against Sunrisers Hyderabad. Yusuf credits his form to Gambhir, who supported his elevation to No.4 in the batting order.
"In the first part of the tournament I was batting lower down and was not getting too many overs to settle down," Yusuf says. He did not ask for a promotion, but considering Yusuf performed well in the middle order in domestic cricket, Gambhir decided to send him in earlier. "In the second half of the tournament he (Gambhir) said he knew I would win a few matches. And that did happen. So he supported me and remained confident about my role."
The Knight Riders environment was such that tough decisions, such as dropping Jacques Kallis after he played eight games, were possible. According to Dahiya, Kallis was forthright during the meeting where he was dropped. "He said I will sit out if the selection panel thinks it would benefit the team combination for certain pitches," Dahiya says. For Dahiya, Kallis set the benchmark in terms of team spirit. "He had the option of staying back at the hotel but he came for every match and was involved in our strategies. On training days he would move around and have a one-on-one with everyone. You don't need team meetings. You need such interactions to help learn and build confidence."
Immediately after the final, Mysore said on Twitter that Kallis was the heart and soul of the team. "I have the greatest respect for Jacques. He did not play the final. But he was the most excited and happiest after winning the championship," Mysore says. "He could have easily caught a flight and gone back home but he said he was staying back for the celebrations in Kolkata. In 2012 he had missed it due to FTP commitments."
On the day of the final, immediately after a team meeting at the hotel, Mysore asked co-owner Shahrukh Khan to speak to the players. "Initially he was reluctant, but Shahrukh eventually spoke about the opportunity at hand. He told the players that this is what we live for, an opportunity to compete. He told them to enjoy the moment, not take any additional pressure, cherish it and whatever happens, happens."
There are many moments that contributed to Knight Riders' march to the title. For Mysore, it is Yusuf's blitzkrieg against Sunrisers, when he reached fifty off 15 balls and finished on 72 off 22. The innings led Knight Riders to a second-place finish in the league. "It changed the entire complexion of the knockouts. It gave us two bites at the cherry by virtue of finishing No. 2," Mysore says. "It also allowed us to play the playoff against Kings XI Punjab in front of a home crowd at Eden Gardens. We got a couple of days to relax before the final. In this format every mini break always helps."
For Yusuf it was "one of the most memorable innings", one that also brought him one of his favourite compliments. "Wasim bhai told me he had played 20 years of cricket and has been doing commentary on TV for more than a decade but he had never seen such an innings," Yusuf says.
Uthappa says to finish as champions was a dream. It was his fourth title of 2013-14, having won three domestic trophies with Karnataka. "To have our backs against the wall at the start and then to finish as the winner is mind boggling."
Piyush Chawla, whose timely boundaries denied Kings XI in the final, recollected the words of Mike Horn, an adventurer hired by the franchise to help the players. "He would say in his game he does not lose his wicket. He loses his life. That kind of statement makes you put your body on line and play to win," Chawla says. "At the halfway stage we were on the edge of falling out of the tournament. So we had to put our body on the line."
This was the first time Chawla has won the IPL, having previously played for Kings XI. He cannot forget what Shahrukh told him. "Shahrukh bhai said many things but the one that stood out was when he told me in all the four matches I played against Kings XI, my previous franchise, I had delivered. That to him was incredible."
Knight Riders had been trying hard to "solve the jigsaw" in the first half of the season, according to Bhattacharjya, and the last piece slotted in once the Uthappa-Gambhir partnership took off. They had five fifty-plus opening stands this season, the most by any pair, and are one of only three opening pairs to hit two century partnerships in a season. "The rest were all good pieces, but the last one we were searching for desperately to solve the jigsaw came in the form of the success of that opening partnership." Bhattacharjya says. "That is when the juggernaut started to roll."
Immediately after Knight Riders had won their maiden IPL title in 2012, their coach Trevor Bayliss closed the dressing-room door to address the team. "He said, 'This is it. Mission accomplished. Let us spend some minutes with ourselves and savour the moment before everyone else comes in,'" Bhattacharjya recollects.
This time, when Bhattacharjya asked Bayliss if he wanted the door closed, the coach said there was no need. "The way we treated the 2014 campaign was like it was a job that needed to be done. It was not that we were scaling impossible heights [this time]," Bhattacharjya says. That is a terrific illustration of knowing, as a team, that we were not over-reaching to win."
Nagraj Gollapudi is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo