May 3, 2009

Anatomy of Kolkata's disaster

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