Kolkata Knight Riders had seemed down and out in the first half of IPL 2021, putting together just two wins in their first seven matches. The postponement of the tournament when Covid-19 breached the bio-bubble gave the team a much-needed break. Moving to the UAE for the second half also brought into play their strengths a bit more, while a juggling of personnel paid great dividends with the emergence of Venkatesh Iyer.
The team went on a winning run that was halted only when Chennai Super Kings proved too formidable in the final. But even with that 27-run defeat, Knight Riders ended up winning seven of the ten games they played in UAE.
So remarkable was their resurgence, that MS Dhoni was moved to acknowledge his opponents' efforts in the title clash even before he spoke of his triumphant side.
"Before I start talking about CSK, I feel it's important that I talk about KKR," Dhoni told Star Sports. "The position they were in, in the first half of IPL, it is very difficult from that position to come back and do what they have really done. If any team deserved to win this year's IPL, I feel it was KKR. Big credit to the support staff and the players. It's not really easy…whenever the team is not doing well, it's a very difficult task. I think the break really helped them. But a tremendous performance."
Knight Riders coach Brendon McCullum later said that the break between the IPL's two halves had worked well for his side. He lavished praise on the team, particularly the top order of Iyer, Shubman Gill, Rahul Tripathi and Nitish Rana for being adaptable enough to change their approach into a more aggressive one.
"The break probably came at a really good time for us to be honest," McCullum said at the post-match press conference. "It can be hard in a tournament such as the IPL to be able to keep your composure when results are going against you. Where we sat after seven games, with only two wins, it was pretty disappointing. So the break came at a good time. During that time, we had some conversations right throughout the few months in between with some guys, and just tried to smooth out a couple of rough edges.
"I always felt that our intent needed to increase to be able to put pressure back on the opposition. I cannot talk highly enough of our top four Indian batters in particular for what they were able to achieve in the second half of the competition. It takes guts to play the way that they did and it takes courage to change the method and to trust the method that us as coaches were asking them to play, which was a more up-tempo game. But they were absolutely fantastic, and were such a massive reason why we were a huge chance in this competition, why we made it as well as what we had. So we've certainly got something to work with there, moving forward."
McCullum was particularly pleased with how Iyer had gone. The tall left-hand batter made an immediate impact in the UAE, hitting 370 runs in 10 innings, at an average of 41.11 and a strike rate of 128.47. The true value of Iyer's runs was brought forth by ESPNcricinfo's Smart Stats, which take into account the situation and opposition that a player faces. Iyer's Smart Runs value was 404.28, a good chunk above his actual runs scored, while his Smart Strike Rate was 140.37, also considerably higher. Among batters who played at least 10 innings, Iyer's batting rating of 41.12 was the sixth-highest in the tournament.
"Venkatesh Iyer has been quite an incredible story," McCullum said. "Looking back, he was actually going to play the next game when we were in India. He was actually going to be in that squad then. But in a funny way, the break came at a good time there too. I think it gave him the opportunity just to get another couple of months of cricket under his belt to understand that his opportunities weren't too far away. And then for him, it was a matter of just bringing the game which he owns, the Venkatesh Iyer gameplan to the table, which is aggressive and (full of) intent.
"He's a big presence, he's a tall man, he plays the game with a bit of a cavalier kind of streak and I think it's so important he holds on to that. He'll be challenged to change his methods at times too, because he might not necessarily be the most consistent because of his flamboyancy, but I hope he remains the Venkatesh Iyer that we've seen so far. He's got a ginormous future in this game. He's a very intelligent man, and I wish him all the very best, and I thank him also for all his efforts. He was a big catalyst for our turnaround in this season."
But while the Iyer-led top order was solid for Knight Riders, the middle order often lacked runs. Captain Eoin Morgan made a mere 41 runs in nine innings in the UAE. Vice-captain Dinesh Karthik had 100 runs in eight innings, more than Morgan but not nearly as many as Knight Riders wanted.
"Yeah I think that's a fair assessment," McCullum said, when asked if the majority of the team's problems lay with the middle order. "I think our bowling group did a really good job. We fielded well, and our top-order batting was superb. But unfortunately, we weren't quite able to get the real impact through our middle-order players… You know there's a lot of experience there, they're the first ones to admit they didn't have the greatest of tournaments. That can happen at times, it wasn't for a lack of trying, that's for sure. The guys certainly invested, they put the work in, it just wasn't necessarily their tournament. That was just unfortunate, that it kind of happened amongst all of the middle order. But that can happen sometimes.
"But again, I'm just really proud of all of the guys for their efforts, and what a story it was - to go as close as we did after being under the pump halfway through the tournament. More positives than negatives, that's for sure. We'll walk away with our heads held high. I think we represented our owners and our fans and all those who support this team as best we possibly could."
Saurabh Somani is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo