May 3, 2009

Anatomy of Kolkata's disaster

How did the most glamorous team in the IPL become a cautionary tale only halfway into the season?

Before the IPL caught fire, before the close finishes and the big hitting, and well before Yuvraj Singh's hat-trick, all the buzz surrounding the tournament was about a blogger called Fake IPL Player. His posts, the first of which went up on day one, dealt largely - and wittily - with "life" inside the Kolkata Knight Riders camp. The jury's out on the blogger's identity and the authenticity of the posts, but this much is clear: his tales of strife, backbiting, politicking and general chaos within the team have shone light on a team that has, by coincidence or otherwise, displayed the symptoms of those diseases within out on the field.

Two weeks into the tournament, the wheels have come off the Knight Riders, arguably the most glamorous team in a glamorous tournament. They lie at the foot of the IPL points table, their season over for all practical purposes barring a Bollywood-style miracle, done in by a mixture of bad management decisions, bad cricket and plain bad luck. And with every incident, however trivial, played up in the saturation coverage of the circus that is the IPL.

When Shah Rukh Khan's Red Chillies Entertainment paid US$75 million for the Kolkata franchise a little over a year ago, it did seem a bit strange at first. The actor has no obvious connection with Kolkata, and the city itself does not have the commercial infrastructure needed to sustain such a high-profile marriage. Once the league started, though, the rationale seemed deceptively simple: Shah Rukh, the consummate entertainer, worked double shifts - as did members of his retinue - to woo and eventually wow the city and its famously passionate fans. The team didn't do that well - ending up sixth in the first season - but no one really seemed to mind. The fans - and, it appears, the players - appreciated the manner in which he threw himself into the role, whether by reading out a poem by Rabindranath Tagore, the city's ultimate hero, at Eden Gardens on the poet's birth anniversary or sending upbeat text messages to the players before and after games.

A year later that relationship lies in tatters. The city is turning against the star and his staff, the players appear confused and disjointed, their body language is negative - and the team's performance on the field is abysmal.

If it can go wrong, it will
The day after the team's 92-run loss to Mumbai Indians, Kolkata's leading newspaper, the hugely influential Bengali-language Ananda Bazar Patrika, delivered a scathing verdict. In an article titled "Don't feel anger, feel pity", their cricket writer Gautam Bhattacharya likened the side to Bollywood strugglers who famously live on the pavements of downtown Mumbai dreaming of success and scrabbling for their shot at it. Only a handful make it. The Knight Riders, Bhattacharya wrote, are as delusional about success in the IPL.

To an outsider, it looks as though the side has been hit by Murphy's Law: Whatever could go wrong has gone wrong. On the field the team has lost six out of seven games, including one by the season's highest margin of defeat in terms of runs and another in terms of balls left (Deccan won with 41 balls to spare). The match against Rajasthan Royals was in their pocket till they had it picked by Yusuf Pathan in the Super Over. Brad Hodge's 73 against Mumbai on Friday was, incredibly, the team's first half-century of the tournament; Brendon McCullum, the captain, who was in fine form just weeks ago against India, now has 31 runs in six innings. Their best bowling in an innings was by an allrounder, Laxmi Ratan Shukla, who didn't get an over in the next game.

That, though, was more by design than accident, a recurring theme for KKR this season. There is no legislating for form on the field, but some decisions seem plain bizarre. Shukla didn't bowl against Bangalore despite his performance in the previous game; neither did Ashok Dinda, a specialist bowler. Instead, Chris Gayle was used for his full quota - including the crucial final over, where the match was lost. If a spinner was to bowl, why was Ajantha Mendis not picked in the playing XI?

In Kolkata the feeling is that the team owners completely failed to figure out the Ganguly phenomenon and what he means to the city. He could have been kicked upstairs, utilised as an icon in the true sense of the word, placated into playing a more mentorial role instead of what seemed like a public humiliation

Multiple captains and other off-field ailments
It's not just match-day performances, however, that are causing headlines. The Knight Riders have been as much newsmakers off the field, and given the fishbowl that is the IPL, one decision instantly affects another. The season was prefaced by the controversial "multi-captaincy" plan, announced by John Buchanan at a press conference in Kolkata, alongside a visibly upset Sourav Ganguly, last season's captain. Not the most tactful decision, as the city, the fans and the media worked themselves into a lather. Ganguly did little to douse the flames; days after Buchanan's announcement, he said the theories were "opinions". Then added, for good measure: "Tomorrow I can jump out and say we need four batting coaches, four John Buchanans, and Shah Rukh Khan can say we need six Andy Bichels." This precipitated an ugly and public war of words through the media, with lines drawn down the middle, but when the dust had settled one thing was clear: Buchanan had Shah Rukh's backing. The theory was eventually discarded, but when the captain for the season was named - from the safe distance of a training camp in South Africa - it was not Ganguly.

Was the single captain a climbdown or was the "multiple captaincy" plan a smokescreen to ease Ganguly out? In any case it spawned yet another raft of conspiracy theories, and that, as Australians before Buchanan have found out when dealing with Ganguly, can be unsettling for any team he's in. In Kolkata, among Ganguly's peers and former team-mates, the feeling is that the team owners got it horribly wrong - they completely failed to figure out the Ganguly phenomenon and what he means to the city. He could have been kicked upstairs, utilised as an icon in the true sense of the word, placated into playing a more mentorial role instead of what seemed like a public humiliation.

"From the very beginning, there has been no clear demarcation of roles between Ganguly and Buchanan," said a former Ranji team-mate. "Ganguly called the shots in the beginning [of last season], and when the team started losing, Shah Rukh turned to Buchanan." It was also, he pointed out, a clash between Ganguly's instinctive style of captaincy and Buchanan's laboriously prepared homework and planning.

Once the season started, other problems ensued. Trouble, often stirred up by the media, followed the team around and minor issues were exaggerated. The "Fake IPL Player" became more than an irritant when the seemingly innocuous act of sending home two players surplus to requirements - Aakash Chopra and Sanjay Bangar - was initially interpreted as a sign that the blogger had been "outed" and expelled. When that was clarified as being a purely cricketing decision, fingers were pointed at the large coaching staff. The fact, as Buchanan and his assistant Matthew Mott stressed, was that several staff members had been hired as talent scouts and not for the team itself. Five staff members left, as planned, though that was seen as an admission of wrong.

Out in the middle, McCullum's elevation to the captaincy appears to be a step too soon. There have been few inspired decisions, and his own woeful form doesn't help. To be fair, his handing Mendis the ball for the Super Over would probably have been hailed as a stroke of genius had the team won, but such are the margins in the game today.

All of this led to speculation - fuelled, invariably, by the media and the mystery blogger - that the team was turning against itself. Buchanan admits to tension in the ranks. "It isn't skill, ability or character, but for whatever reason - some out of our control, some not - it has been pretty evident that some of the players have been tense. We obviously have a high expectation of ourselves, and when things don't go your way, players can start to play with less freedom."

Mott says the personalities at play haven't been a distraction. "There are big personalities involved in a lot of the franchises. I don't think they're a distraction. When you're not winning, these are the sort of [reports] that tend to surface. We just need a good few games to get rolling."

Sins of selection
Easier said than done, perhaps, given the way the team is playing. For that, critics put much of the blame on last season, even going as far back as the first auction. "The team think-tank failed to get the team combination right in the first place," says a veteran Kolkata cricket administrator. "The selection of India discards like Chopra and Ajit Agarkar defied common cricket wisdom, as did that of [Sanjay] Bangar this year." Shoaib Akhtar, out of practice and clearly overweight, was an emotional pick by Shah Rukh and Ganguly, for reasons other than strict deliverability. The final team selection, he says, reflected the confusion - there was nobody stepping back and looking at the team composition as a whole. Though the team had several top foreign batsmen - McCullum, Ricky Ponting and Gayle - it lacked any big-name Indian batsman familiar with the format. As a result, the team selection, given the restriction on foreign players, has inevitably been handicapped.

They had a chance to redress that balance in the second auction, earlier this year; instead, they shelled out $600,000 for Bangladesh allrounder Mashrafe Mortaza after an absurd bidding war with Kings XI Punjab that seemed, at the time, to be nothing more than an ego battle (or an expensive in-joke) between Shah Rukh and his Bollywood co-star Preity Zinta. Mashrafe is yet to play a game this season.

There's been bad luck too. Ponting and Gayle were not available last year, one for part and the other for the whole, and Ponting pulled out this year too. Ishant Sharma seemed a smart pick, but he's not been up to his high standard in the past few months. McCullum has been out of sorts. Cheteshwar Pujara, among the runs in the warm-up games, has a knee injury that has kept him out of the tournament so far.

What seems down to more bad planning, though, and seems to have hurt the team the most is the absence of young Indian talent - like KP Appanna for Bangalore, Rajasthan's Kamran Khan, or Mumbai's Dhawal Kulkarni. Dinda had a fair season last year but he's off the boil this year, and in any case at 25 he's no spring chicken. The ultimate irony came last Wednesday, when Bangalore beat Kolkata. Bangalore's highest scorer was Shreevats Goswami, not yet 20, born and bred in Kolkata and a regular in the Bengal Ranji side.

It's just a handful in the squad of 20 who are firing. Take away Gayle - who may play on Sunday but will miss the rest of the season - and you lose the obvious match-winner.

It doesn't help that the IPL schedule - brutal even by contemporary standards - allows no time for a team to play itself back into form. Buchanan, no stranger to punishing schedules, describes the pressure and intensity of coaching in the IPL as greater than anything he has experienced in a Test or one-day series.

The Shah Rukh factor
In all this, Shah Rukh Khan has been the one constant - constantly on the TV screens, or in the headlines, exhorting his boys, praising "Dada", spinning things more than any of his slow bowlers. Last year he was tireless, in the stands for almost every game, even in the searing summer heat, leading his personal pack of celebrity cheerleaders. This year the pack is smaller, the man himself has been hampered by a shoulder injury. Last year his frequent messages invigorated the team; this year the novelty has worn off, the lengthy texts deemed "preachy".

But if his detractors see him as interfering and in-your-face, the team management sees him as a committed owner. After the mauling by Mumbai, says Mott, the team had a get-together - on McCullum's suggestion - as a way of bonding. "Shah Rukh came down and had a really good chat with the boys. He said that he could see that we were all hurting, and that he was still behind us 100%. I think the boys took a lot of heart out of that."

Shah Rukh returned to Mumbai last week to vote in the national elections - saying he would return to South Africa "only when they [his team] play well and win" - and his return was accompanied by media reports that he plans to sell his entire stake in the team. Shah Rukh subsequently denied such plans, but one report in the respected Business Standard quoted an official of the Sahara group, one of the purported buyers, as saying they hadn't been approached but would be happy to buy the team if they were.

So, at this mid-tournament stage, what's the prognosis for Kolkata Knight Riders? The cynics will say things can only get better - there really is nowhere to go but up. Buchanan admits that Gayle - whenever he leaves - will be a loss. Mott, though, sees the positives and takes heart from the team currently top of the league table. "You look at the way Deccan struggled last year, and the way they've been able to turn it around here. That is a bit of inspiration for us. Everything happens so fast and the schedule is so tight in this tournament that one good week can put you right back up there. That's what all the chat is about in our camp. We know we haven't played to our potential yet, but no one has given up."

(With inputs from Ajay Shankar and Alex Brown)

Jayaditya Gupta is executive editor of Cricinfo in India

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • rahulStillHeaded on May 5, 2009, 20:11 GMT

    Hi Guys, seems like a hell lot of people are angry with KKR. Guys, winning and losing are part of this game and lets not forget that KKR have lost some very close ones. In this tight schedule, there is hardly any time with SRK to think over and rectify the mistakes. He is a human being and he deserves respect. See how Deccan have changed their fortunes this time.

    Please don't forget that SRK also wants his team to win, so whtever call he is taking is based on some rationale. He might be making mistakes but he also wants the team to win.

    Real KKR fans should not be angry but sympathetic in these hard times.

    Lets hope KKR learns and next time they keep their cricket simple and instinctive.

  • janakivallabhan on May 5, 2009, 16:42 GMT

    Ganguly, one of the best captains India has produced, has not been given proper treatment by the coach,who played only 7 first class matches during 78-79. It is unfair on the part of Khan to employ this coach and blame Ganguly for the failure.It is of course the players have to play and produce the result.But the Aus. coach should be asked to resign or he should be sacked for not motivationg the players properly.

  • fataquie on May 5, 2009, 16:30 GMT

    It may sound harsh, but as coach, Mr. Buchanan has ten times more faith in the overseas (specially Australian, Kiwi, and S. African) players than Indian players, which is utterly wrong. Buchanan's is a "make process utterly complicated" type coaching which no one seems to understand, which is contrary to Shane Warne's keeping things simple and build confidence. Shane Warne is probably an excellent captain that the world never got to see in tests and ODIs. Buchanan, on the other hand, is full of rubbish theories who just happened to be at the right place with a team full of legends (Aussies in the '90s and '00s). Mr. Buchanan has until not done things only to deter his team's confidence as well as destroying the spirit within the team. Would he want a team to be led by a young Indian if it was Aussie T20 and the team had an icon, never say die, player like Steve Waugh....well that is Ganguly for India........

  • dhaka-sydney on May 5, 2009, 16:23 GMT

    i think kolkata have the problem from grassroots. westindies domestic cricket have got some real hard hitter from where they can buy some player. the selection of domestic criketer is absolute absurd. sanjay bangar, akash chopra they are not the type of 20-20 player, they are classical test player.. how they can even thought of taking those players. jhon buchanan, what to say about this man. may be he was 1 of the best coaches in the world. but don't 4get he was coaching the best cricket team in the history. and shane warne did comment that this team can still dominate without coach which is crystal true. then MASRAFE MORTAZA, a dashing allrounder but kkr and jhon have no idea that what this guy can do in his day. henriques,mendis fail to deliver but still ahead of mash. then y buy him 4 6m.

  • KTiwari on May 4, 2009, 21:03 GMT

    This season is gone for KKR and mark my words, I don't see any way for them even for next reason. The whole team combination is wrong because they don't have strong Indian player except Ganguly and Ishant.Because...

    1. Ganguly has been captain which India has produced and KKR replace him with 2nd choice NZ captain. Not a smart move. 2.Most of the players are on three year contract so they will not be able to change team composition until 2011 3.A froeign captain will find really hard to communicate with India juniors and new comes 4.A froeign captain will find hard to spot & inspire Indian talent unless you are Shane Warne

  • jishubhai on May 4, 2009, 13:53 GMT

    I do not agree with the comments: ''and the city itself does not have the commercial infrastructure needed to sustain such a high-profile marriage" Kolkata did everything to embrace the Knight Riders as their own. But unfortunately the management should balme themselves for breaking so many hearts in this passionate city. Shane Warne has proved his great cricket brain in every match Rajasthan Royals played. He is very critical about Buchanan. I think he is right. In this season KKR has shown us a team without planning,spirit,captain(real) and most of all it has fielded a team which can not put up a fight!! The whole management is responsible for this and in a way the owner too. Buchanan should go, he did not do anything good for the team. If you can not play with your brain,play with your heart but I think this coach has stabbed the heart of this team. Kick him out...

  • hasib9 on May 4, 2009, 13:47 GMT

    Here are a few of the many reasons why KKR failed:

    1. You can have a maximum of 4 international players in a match. Even if you have the best 4 in your side, you still need to have 7 good Indian cricketers. Ishant is more like a test player to me, and Ganguly is obviously too old for T20, can't even make it to the Indian ODI side. You need players like the Pathans in your side to win matches.

    2. Coach has bad relationship with some of the players. In order to win, a team must be united. Personal performances most of the time doesn't matter. it's the team-work that matters at the end of the day.

    3. Bad selectors. Ishant obviously doesn't have a new-ball partner. Mortaza should have always been included in the side.

    4. Sahruk Khan doesn't know much about cricket. He is playing a big role in selecting the 11 players, which is why Agarkar bowls one over every match, gives away 17 runs, and is still selected for the next match.

    They need Mortaza if they are to win a match.

  • RSG476 on May 4, 2009, 10:51 GMT

    It is ironic to see Mr. Gupta quote AnandaBazarPatrika. The English publication, The Telegraph, of the same group, had waxed eloquent on how the choice of multiple captains was reflective of a move from a fedual Indian cricket setup to a management driven one- what a load of bunkum. KKR completely mishandled Ganguly - if they wanted a new captain, given Ganguly's age and retirement, they should have taken him into the loop, planned it out and made sure that oddball theories were not circulated to facilitate such a change. That would have given Ganguly the needed respect, would have been direct and would have won KKR respect. And maybe that would have rubbed off the team. We now have mystifying policies (if Dinda is not bowled, why does he play), poor cricket all around, and a coach who would not know Sun Tzu if it jumped up and bit him on his behind. This season is perhaps gone. Try some planning for the next, with core cricket skills and less of management idiocy dressed up in jargon.

  • Delhiwala on May 4, 2009, 8:56 GMT

    I have a clear thing to say.

    Shahrukh Khan does not understand cricket as a whole--including Twenty-20! Just look at his team combination this year, after the disastrous first year. One may have enough reasons to pint fingers at some players and ask: Oh my God, why on earth they are selected! And the way he has been constantly humiliating Sourav has harmed both Sourav's perormance as well as his fans. The entire saga of the team's captaincy has been a pathetic joke. And finally, Mashrafee, an all rounder who has been the key figure behind some of the remarkable victories of Bangladesh against other teams (including India in the West Indies world cup), is still warming the reserve bench! DInda gave 23 runs in 2 overs in the last match, and yet Mashrafee is not allowed to play! Can you imagine? The whole management of KKR is a comprehensive joke.

  • Looch on May 4, 2009, 7:35 GMT

    Stop blaming the coach, it's the performance of the 11 blokes out on the field that counts. Also it just goes to show that you can't buy success.

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