April 30, 2011

New-look Kolkata turn it around

From the whipping boys of the IPL to serious contenders, the Knight Riders have come a long way

Four months ago, Gautam Gambhir's name was the first to come out of the hat at the IPL player auction. Gambhir had been a solid but unspectacular performer for Delhi Daredevils over the first three years, and while he was expected to be sought after, what happened next would surprise everyone. Gambhir's price didn't merely rise, it skyrocketed. First, it went past $1 million. Then $1.5 million. Then $2 million, the most ever bid in the IPL. When the dust settled, Kolkata Knight Riders were the last team standing, having pushed Gambhir's value to $2.4 million. Sold!

Kolkata followed that up by buying Yusuf Pathan for $2.1 million and Jacques Kallis for $1.2 million. In 45 minutes they had spent 62% of their salary cap on three players. It looked like madness. But there was a method in there; one that was intended to transform Kolkata from headline-making also-rans to actual championship contenders.

Halfway through the league stage, Kolkata sit in second place on the points table, sandwiched between last year's finalists, Mumbai Indians and Chennai Super Kings, and have been a fixture in the top four since they beat Rajasthan Royals in their third game. If they can build on their strong start, the only franchise to have never qualified for the IPL semi-finals should have every chance of erasing that record.

It had all looked so promising back in 2008. Shah Rukh Khan gave Kolkata star appeal, and with human headline Sourav Ganguly at the helm, the team seemed destined for big things. Only, somebody forgot to read the script. In their first three seasons Kolkata finished sixth, last and sixth.

Their misery was compounded by their endless ability to attract controversy. There was the Fake IPL Player blogger, who turned the franchise into a running joke; coach John Buchanan's multiple-captain theory; and Ganguly's quarrels with Buchanan and Brendon McCullum. Kolkata had all the drama and intrigue of a Bollywood blockbuster, but without the box office success.

"The team had to change," Arun Lal, former India and West Bengal opener, told ESPNcricinfo.

Only, this was no simple job. The house that Shah Rukh built needed more than a fresh coat of paint. It needed to be razed and rebuilt.

As its new head, the franchise hired Venky Mysore, who had 25 years of experience in the insurance business. Mysore had played cricket for Madras University and understood the game. The job was a way back into the sport for him. He took over as chief executive in September 2010, and quickly realised that the player auction provided the perfect opportunity for Kolkata to start over.

Mysore first asked his team to identify types of players that they wanted - gamechangers, fast bowlers, wicketkeeper-batsmen - rather than individuals. "You cannot afford to attach yourself to names when you are going with an auction strategy," Mysore told ESPNcricinfo. "It is much more the skill sets and the composition more generically."

The next step was to pick eight players for each position. Once they had assembled their wishlist, it was time to learn how to deal with auction pressure. "There is a certain panic that sets in when you get into that situation," Mysore says. To deal with that panic, the team conducted mock auctions in the weeks leading up to the event. Mysore wrote out what he thought the other teams' strategies would be and included them in their simulations.

By the end of the exercise they had a value for every player up for grabs in Bangalore. But even that wasn't good enough. Mysore wanted every edge he could find and decided to take a leaf out of a poker player's book. The best of them can read opponents, and tell from body language whether an opponent is bluffing or not. Mysore went to the BCCI, got videos of the first two auctions and studied them, looking for what are called "tells", signs that give away what another person may be thinking.

It was this detailed preparation that allowed them to feel confident about spending more than a quarter of their budget on one player. The team wanted, as part of their core, "a very good Indian player, a current international," according to coach Dav Whatmore. "There was a choice of probably four of these and we went for Gambhir."

Similarly Yusuf was someone Whatmore felt was "very important" to their plans of changing the team's fortunes, while Kallis was targeted for his proven ability in all forms of the game.

But lost in the glare of all the money being thrown around was that Kolkata bought plenty of talent on the cheap too - they picked up nine other players, each for $500,000 or less.

"Brett Lee is a case in point," Mysore says. "When we got him at base price [$400,000] I don't think too many people expected him to do what he did in the World Cup. But we had done our homework. He was training hard. He was as fit as he had ever been."

The core of Gambhir, Kallis, Yusuf and Lee was rounded out with of group of international and domestic players to fill a number of roles. England batsman Eoin Morgan and Netherlands' Ryan ten Doeschate add batting depth. Bangladesh captain Shakib Al Hasan gives the team another quality allrounder, while Brad Haddin, the Australian wicketkeeper-batsman, was to provide flexibility behind the stumps. Add the likes of Manoj Tiwary, Iqbal Abdulla and Lakshmipathy Balaji, and Kolkata had much talent and experience up and down the order.

The big decision, was, of course, letting Ganguly go. Perhaps only Sachin Tendulkar is as tied to the city of his birth as the Prince of Kolkata is. The decision, Mysore says, was based on cold cricketing logic. Any "retained" players would be locked in for two years, with the possibility of a third, and a 40-year Ganguly was always going to be a risk. A section of the fans did lash out at Kolkata for jettisoning their hero, but the team, Mysore said, always had to be more important than a single player.

Once the post-auction domestic signing frenzy had died down, Kolkata wound up with 20 names on its roster, the fewest among all the franchises. A smaller squad is easier to manage tactically and financially. "You look at a World Cup," Whatmore says. "You are playing in a tournament for roughly the same time and you have 15 players. The more you've got, the harder it is."

Lal backs up Whatmore's assessment that 20 is plenty. "I like this team," he says. "It has a lot of energy. It has great balance. It has terrific match-winners. Gautam Gambhir, Yusuf Pathan. Kallis is a great plus. Brett Lee can turn around a game on his day.

"Shakib can be very interesting. The IPL is being played in April and May on tired wickets, so you definitely need spinners."

It took the new-look Knight Riders three games to find themselves. They stumbled against Chennai Super Kings in the opener, and then barely hung on against Deccan Chargers to register their first win. But it all came together against Rajasthan. Chasing 160, Kolkata lost an early wicket but Gambhir and Kallis quelled any jangling nerves with an unhurried, unbeaten 152-run partnership.

Gambhir's leadership seems to have brought a quiet calm that was missing during Ganguly's tumultuous reign, while Kallis has provided the solidity at the top that Chris Gayle and McCullum, for all their explosiveness, lacked. They have delivered precisely the kind of goods for which the franchise shelled out all those millions.

The team followed their away win by thumping Rajasthan in the return game at Eden Gardens, and this time the bowlers were the stars. Led by Balaji, who uncorked one of the deliveries of the tournament to get rid of Shane Watson, they toppled Rajasthan for 81 and waltzed to victory. Gambhir was there at the end once again.

Having seen Kolkata demolish his team twice, Rajasthan chief executive Sean Morris needs no further convincing. He says Kolkata are a formidable side and expects them to be there at the business end of the tournament. "They have some of the best players in the world. Lots of variety in their bowling attack. They are a well-organised and well-run unit. I always thought they would be one of the top teams."

Kolkata are targeting a semi-final spot this season and Lal reckons they have a good shot at making the knockout stages. He ranks Mumbai Indians and Chennai as the best teams in the tournament, with Kolkata right behind, though he is quick to point out how unpredictable Twenty20 cricket can be. "I expected the last team to be successful. The cricketers all underperformed. Call it ill luck. Call it lack of gelling. Everything went wrong."

Kolkata stumbled against Kochi and Royal Challengers at home, but rebounded by beating Delhi Daredevils on Thursday. It was the lesser-known players who shone in the 17-run win: local boy Tiwary top- scored with 61, and Abdulla took three crucial wickets. Adbulla is now their leading wicket-taker this season with eight, the same as Yusuf, who has yet to shine with the bat but has delivered consistently with the ball. Meanwhile Tiwary has 194 runs at 97, just shy of Gambhir, with Kallis a little further ahead, emphasising the depth in this team.

The win over Delhi took Kolkata above Chennai on net run rate and into second place. Rubbing shoulders with the defending champions is a heady place for them to be, and early vindication for stripping the cupboard bare and restocking it.

Tariq Engineer is a senior sub-editor at Cricinfo