'It was easier getting runs in the first three years of the IPL than it is now'
Another good IPL for you personally as well as for the team?
Yes, you can say that. But personal things do not matter. We still have to qualify for the playoffs. Yes, it is always good to contribute, but the most important thing is where we finish on the points table. That is more important to me than how many runs I score.
It was not an easy beginning. It is tough when you lose a player like Andre Russell. It is very difficult to replace someone with his abilities, especially with the kind of the firepower he used to provide at No. 7 - bowling at 140-plus was always an advantage - and he is an unbelievable fielder. Still, we should be pretty happy with where we are at the moment. Having said that, in two recent matches we got outplayed by two individual performances. It was not teams, but David Warner and then Rahul Tripathi who outplayed us in successive matches.
Your strike rate so far this season is your highest in any season since 2012. Has there been a conscious effort to push it up?
Strike rates depend on the surfaces you play on. The surface we used to play on at home was different to now. In the previous seasons, we played seven matches on a surface that was slow and low. Playing on a low surface is always difficult for anyone to play their strokes. You need to be more of a grafter. But now since the surface has changed and the ball comes on much quicker, you can play through line.
It also depends on your mindset: what you are looking to do, how you are looking to approach each season. I have always thought that it is important for me to be positive because, as I said, since we do not have someone like Russell to finish off matches, I have to be really proactive up front in the first six overs. So, yes, there was a conscious effort on my part.
What kind of role did you assign yourself: play the anchor or the aggressor?
You ought to start by feeling positive, especially in those first six overs, when you can cash in a lot. And after that, depending on how your partner is batting and what kind of form he is in and what total you are chasing or planning to set as a target, you decide who bats through and who plays the aggressor. At one stage Robin [Uthappa] fortunately had been hitting the ball really well and taking a lot of pressure off me. So I could be the aggressor in the first six and then maybe try and bat till the 15th over to try and set a platform for the lower middle order to take over. So your partner helps you decide what kind of role you want to perform.
Do you know you are also the second-most* successful IPL captain in terms of win percentage, only behind Rohit Sharma (among those who have captained in at least 60 matches)?
Doesn't matter. It is all about how many titles we win. [But] it is good, because I have always believed that it's the team that helps me be successful. Yes, you can try and give them the best environment, you can try and give them a lot of security as well, by not chopping and changing too much. But it does make me happy, because I am not too much of a stats man.
So no one told you about that stat?
Honestly, no. I don't even know what my strike rate is this IPL. You are the first one to point that out.
When you sit at the auction table, don't the stats matter?
For me they don't. I genuinely do not even see the stats. It is just about the ability of the individual, what he brings to the table is all that matters. Three years back, Russell's stats were absolutely shocking. But we always thought he could be one of the most dangerous T20 players or could be the best allrounder in the world. At that stage, had I seen his stats, he could have gone unsold. I can't expect Russell, who is batting at No. 8, to have an average of 30-35 in T20s. I would rather have him get a ten-ball 30-odd, and give me four overs with the ball.
Perhaps that might explain your open-mindedness as captain, and willingness to experiment with strategy. For example, opening with Sunil Narine and Chris Lynn.
When we decided to play Chris Lynn this year, we thought we needed to get the best out of him, and the best way was to make him open. Yes, there was this thought that why do we fix something which is not broken. Me and Robin have done really well as an opening pair, but I always thought it is not about the individual. It is about where you can get the best out of an individual.
Lynn had to bat in the top order so Robin had to go down. What Lynny did in the first two games was unbelievable. We don't have that much firepower with Russell not being there, so we wanted to go really hard up front.
It was unfortunate that Lynny got injured. We wanted to continue the same momentum. Obviously it was difficult to go as hard as Lynny was going. Sunil batting at No. 8 or 9 wasn't giving us anything, especially as he was not able to face many deliveries. So if we could promote him and he could give us whatever little bit of momentum in the first six overs, that could help Robin as well - coming at No. 3, he could take his time. It helps me take my time as well, rather than both of us going hard straightaway. I could settle down in the first two or three overs while Sunil plays the aggressor.
Did you tell Robin?
Obviously. There is nothing wrong. I've batted at No. 3 or 4 for the team. It is not about where individuals want to bat. It is about where the team wants you to bat. Individuals should not be having any choices. You are playing a team sport, so the team comes first. We thought that we could get the best out of Sunil by opening the batting with him. There are times when it backfired, when he did not get that many runs, but overall I am pretty happy with what he has delivered.
With such a strategy, isn't there a danger of becoming predictable, as oppositions know what Narine is there to do?
That's fine as well. Bowlers will always be under pressure, because Sunil has nothing to lose. When the bowler is under pressure, he will end up bowling defensively rather than looking to take wickets. It can be an advantage for us. And the thing is, if you lose Sunil early, you don't lose too much. If you lose someone like me or Robin, then it is a big loss. If Sunil can give us 20 or 30 quick runs and we end up losing him, we haven't lost too much.
You bought three fast bowlers at the auction, possibly because of the re-laid Eden Gardens pitch, which supports bounce and seam movement. Your top three wicket-takers this season so far are fast bowlers. So has your strategy proved to be correct?
We realised last year that our fast-bowling attack was becoming too one-dimensional. There was Morne [Morkel and Jason Holder. Umesh [Yadav] got injured. So there was not enough pace in our attack. Sometimes having pace is an advantage because someone bowling 145-150kph can be a wicket-taking option. We thought we needed variety as well. So Nathan Coulter-Nile and Trent Boult could provide that variety. The surface was a factor. Spin used to be more dominant in the previous seasons; now it has more carry. Yes, you prepare your team according to the home conditions, so it was a strategic decision.
How much of a difference has Coulter-Nile made?
He is a pretty quiet guy. Take his very first match, which he was playing after a year, coming out of a stress fracture. It was at four o'clock and Delhi was absolutely boiling. To win the Man-of-the-Match award shows his character and mental toughness. The way he bowled at Eden when we got RCB out for 49 - it was the game-changing spell for me. He got Virat [Kohli] and AB [de Villiers]. Bowling at 148-149kph was unbelievable. When you see someone bowling at pace, it gives the confidence that we can rattle opposition. Really happy that we have someone like him. He is one of the best white-ball bowlers I have seen. He is someone who can swing it up front and bowls yorkers consistently at the death.
Chris Woakes has been Knight Riders' leading wicket-taker so far this season. How do you assess his performance in his first IPL season?
Colin de Grandhomme is our batting allrounder. Chris Woakes is more of a bowling allrounder. If you want to replace someone like Russell, you need two people to actually replace him. Woakesy, it is a little unfair on him because he has batted at No. 8, where he has not got too many balls to face. He is a good batsman who needs to take his time. He comes in when there are hardly two or three overs left.
But he has bowled really well. It is always tough to bowl first-change, especially in the Powerplay, when you are bowling the fourth or fifth over, when batsmen are willing to take you on. Opening the bowling is still a little easier than bowling first-change in the Powerplay. And it is his first IPL as well. The way he has handled the pressure, bowling those tough overs initially and then at death, he has been very good.
In the past, Narine was the go-to bowler. But this season he has endured possibly his worst IPL, in terms of average and strike rate. Yet you have persisted with him.
You need to keep in mind the conditions at all venues. Earlier there were two places where it used to spin: Chennai and Kolkata. This year, apart from Imran Tahir, who is a wristspinner, not a lot of spinners have got too many wickets.
Stephen Fleming, coach of Tahir's team (Rising Pune Supergiant), said that teams had failed to read the conditions well in the initial phase of this IPL. Do you agree?
Look at the surfaces as well. The conditions at Chennai and Eden, especially in the second innings, it used to turn. But this year, on most surfaces the ball has not spun at all. But even if Narine has not got too many wickets, some of the spells he has bowled have been game-changers for us. Bowling four overs for 16 or 20. The oppositions, I feel, have decided not to give him a wicket. They want to just play out his overs and then attack from the other end. So you have to give it to him, the kind of consistency he has shown over the years, which has been unbelievable.
He has planted doubt in batsmen's minds over the years.
Exactly. That is what he has done. People keep asking me about his mystery and stuff, but I have always felt that mystery is something which will only stay for a couple of seasons. You've got to have that quality to be consistent and to be able to carry on for so many seasons. That is what he has shown - he is a quality bowler.
Despite the consistency the Knight Riders have displayed, there have been instances, as you pointed out, when individuals like Warner or Tripathi have trumped your plans. How do you guard against that in the rest of the tournament?
This is the only format in which an individual can take the game away from you. That is expected. But you've got to be careful. Things can get out of your hand and at the same time you can wrest control back very quickly in T20. You can get the momentum back with two or three good overs.
I still remember against RCB we were 70-odd for 1 after six overs. And we were all out for 131. When I got out after six overs I was expecting us to get 180-190 easily. We were bowled out in the 20th over. So things can change very quickly. What happens is, batsmen are always looking to score runs, they are always looking to be aggressive, so there is always an opportunity for a bowler to strike.
People say that T20 is a batsman's format, but I am a very strong believer that it is a bowler's format as well. A bowler knows he has 24 deliveries and that there is an opportunity every ball to strike. Twenty-four deliveries, 24 opportunities. Because if you ask me as a batsman, my mindset is: I'm always looking to score runs, I'm always looking to strike hard, I'm always giving an opportunity to the bowler to get me out. It is not like I am looking to be subdued and rotate strike. Very few times does that happen.
Is there a big change you have seen in ten years of IPL?
One big change, in fact, has been in the field placements. People have become far more innovative. In 2008 it was very conventional. We never had fields like three points and a deep cover and a long-off. There always used to be a short third man, a backward point and a cover - a more conventional field. There was a time when teams placed four fielders on the off side and the rest on the leg side.
There is a range of different strokes as well. I don't remember in the first two or three years batsmen playing so many switch hits. Okay, people used to whack the ball out of the ground, but that was done the conventional way, not the unorthodox way. Look now: people lapping, reverse-lapping, scooping, switch-hitting. With different strokes, there have been different innovations and different field placements, which has made it very exciting. But it has also made it tough for the batsmen.
I feel getting runs in the first three years of the IPL was far easier than it is now. The reason is, bowlers have become smarter, have different game plans and have different field placements. They come round the wicket, bowl wide yorkers, have different variations, bowl different slower balls, the knuckleball.
Batsmen have also started treating the first four or five overs as if they are playing at the death.
Exactly. When I joined KKR the first year , our game plan was to get 40-45 in the first six overs, try and get to 100 by 15 overs with wickets in hand and then go hard in the final five. I still remember when Jacques [Kallis] was there as opener. We used to say, in our conditions, let us score at seven an over till the 15th over and then try and get 50 in the final five overs and get to 160, which we always thought, with our bowling attack in home conditions, would be a good score. Now, sometimes 200 is not a good score. People have become far more fearless, far more innovative. This is what IPL has done.
All this means more headaches for a captain. What do you when Warner switch-hits Narine repeatedly?
Yes, he kept switch-hitting. Bowlers do not expect batsmen to switch-hit consistently. The only thing you can do is try and set a different field. If I want to bowl a good delivery I would looking at the conventional shot, not the unorthodox shot. And when someone like Warner is playing an unorthodox shot, you try and work with your field placements. Sometimes you just have to stand and applaud a batsman.
You don't play the switch hit. Why not?
I don't know how to play a switch hit. I have never attempted it even in the nets. I have never reverse-swept either. My game is too conventional. That is how I was brought up. I don't even sweep that much.
Growing up, I was told by my coaches that the sweep is the last option you have against spin. If you can try and use your feet, if you can use the depth of your crease, you don't need to sweep. But now I have realised it is always good to have another shot in your armoury. If I have to, I might do it in T20 when you have to slog-sweep and lap, but these strokes do not come to me naturally. I would never try and do it in 50-over cricket, unless it is a compulsion. I would hate doing it in first-class cricket.
At 35, your drive is as strong as it was when you played for India for the first time. What keeps that passion strong?
I love winning. Winning for me is everything. Winning makes me happy, makes me satisfied, makes me be at peace. I just want to win, irrespective of what platform I play. Nothing else keeps me hungry. Nothing else makes me work hard.
*After the loss to Kings XI on May 9, Gambhir is now the third-most successful IPL captain, below Rohit Sharma and MS Dhoni. This interview was conducted before that game.
Nagraj Gollapudi is a senior assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo