Frail middle order costs Knight Riders
Where they finished
Fourth on the league table. Crashed out after a 22-run defeat to Sunrisers Hyderabad in the Eliminator.
How they got there
For a team that on paper looked supremely balanced, Kolkata Knight Riders slipped up at a critical point of the tournament, winning just two of their last five league matches. At one point, Knight Riders' XI consisted of as many as 10 players who had played some form of international cricket, and yet, never once did they look like the most dominant or threatening force in the competition.
Gautam Gambhir and Robin Uthappa's flourishing opening partnership was the dominant theme of the first half. But their alliance did not transcend to the next level, occupied by the likes of AB de Villiers and Virat Kohli. The Uthappa-Gambhir combine had veiled Knight Riders' frail middle order. But Yusuf Pathan's timely return to form bailed them out once the duo cooled off in the latter stages.
For an attack that is as spin-heavy as theirs, Knight Riders' bowling numbers weren't too skewed. Piyush Chawla, Sunil Narine, Shakib Al Hasan, Brad Hogg and Kuldeep Yadav's combined tally of 37 wickets was one short of what their pace quartet of Morne Morkel, Umesh Yadav, Andre Russell and Ankit Rajpoot managed. Chawla, with a quicker, seam-up variation added to his arsenal, was Knight Riders' best spinner, but Kuldeep, the 21-year old chinaman bowler, also made viewers sit up by smartly mixing up his length and pace.
Usually a formidable side at their bastion, Eden Gardens, Knight Riders won four and lost three at home - a stark contrast to 5-1 in 2015 and 4-0 in 2014. That Knight Riders relied heavily on particular individuals became apparent when they struggled to cope with the absence of Manish Pandey when he was down with chickenpox. Their quest to find a suitable replacement at No. 3 even extended to trying Chawla out at that position. They were able to keep their head above water when Andre Russell picked up an ankle injury, and beat Sunrisers Hyderabad by 22 runs in their final league match to seal a playoffs berth. But Russell's absence was telling in the Eliminator when they lost to the same opponents by the same margin.
A domineering presence in the middle order, Yusuf showed that opponents still had good reason to be wary of him. Yusuf's purple patch began with an unbeaten 29-ball 60 against Royal Challengers Bangalore that fired Knight Riders to an improbable win. Yusuf followed that up with scores of 19*, 63* and 37* before he biffed an unbeaten 52 in their last league match that took his team through to the playoffs. In all, he crunched 361 runs - third behind Gambhir and Uthappa - at 72.20 and struck at 145.56.
Russell was Knight Riders' undisputed MVP. Brute force and an uncanny ability to clear the boundary with ease have made Russell among the most feared finishers in T20 cricket, and he provided an uninhibited display of that. While Russell was duly heralded for his prowess with the bat, it was with the ball that he made a greater impact. Russell worked his way to the top of his team's bowling charts with 15 scalps, and among the main pacers - Morkel, Umesh and himself - was the only one with an economy rate of less than eight.
Suryakumar Yadav had enjoyed a rich vein of form in the 2015-16 Ranji Trophy, cracking three centuries and five half-centuries on his way to 788 runs. In the first real opportunity he got in IPL 2016, Suryakumar made it count, striking 60 off 49 balls against Rising Pune Supergiants to help Knight Riders chase down 161 in a last-over finish on a turning track. But Suryakumar wasn't able to stay switched on thereafter, with a lack of opportunities and a failure to capitalise on starts highlighting his campaign. In all, he managed only 182 runs from 11 innings at a strike rate of 127.27.
- Knight Riders used eight different batsmen at No. 3 - the most by any team in this IPL. Only Delhi Daredevils have used more players at that spot - nine in 2011 and 2013. Knight Riders themselves had used eight players in 2010.
- Gambhir and Uthappa added 566 runs - the second-most by an opening pair in this IPL after Shikhar Dhawan and David Warner, and the most ever by a Knight Riders pair.
- Knight Riders took 25 wickets in the Powerplay overs of the league stage - the most by any team.
After half-centuries from KL Rahul and Virat Kohli had lifted them to 185 for 7, Royal Challengers had Knight Riders on the mat at 69 for 4 at the M Chinnaswamy Stadium. Russell joined Yusuf and the duo struggled to middle the ball, and with 81 needed from six overs, the home team was ready to apply the choke. That was until Russell and Yusuf launched a sensational assault, plundering 58 runs in three overs. Russell fell with 21 needed, but Yusuf sealed a remarkable come-from-behind win with five balls to spare.
Before their match against Gujarat Lions on May 8, Knight Riders were the No. 1 team on the points table, and with a healthy net run rate, a win would have put them comfortably ahead of the rest and consolidated top spot. But an early wobble reduced them to 24 for 4 and it took half-centuries from Yusuf and Shakib Al Hasan, who shared an unbroken fifth-wicket partnership of 134, to lift them to 158. Dinesh Karthik's half-century and contributions from the rest of the order helped Lions seal the chase in just 18 overs and Knight Riders were displaced from the top. The defeat also began a stumble that ended with Knight Riders having to settle for fourth place and losing an extra chance to make the final.
What they need to do next season
Cut out their dependency on Uthappa and Gambhir to give them a good start, and for Russell to provide the final flourish. Knight Riders need their middle order to take more responsibility. Knight Riders could also freshen up their line-up to avoid becoming predictable and making it easier for opponents to plan against them.
Despite having had a decent season, Sunil Narine seems past his prime and isn't a particularly unsettling prospect for opponents anymore. Knight Riders, therefore, may need to hunt for a new strike bowler.
Akshay Gopalakrishnan is a sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo