After two years of missing out due to an inferior net run rate (NRR), Kolkata Knight Riders are back in the playoffs, and have done it in barnstorming fashion in the second half of IPL 2021. When the season was suspended in May, Knight Riders had played seven games and won two. The move to UAE saw them reverse those results, winning five of their next seven games, and in commanding enough fashion to survive a Mumbai Indians' late NRR charge.
Royal Challengers Bangalore have not been too far behind, following their good showing in the first half with solid displays in the second, winning four of their seven matches in UAE.
So, there's no obvious "form team" between the two, both having shown plenty of spark so far in this leg, both filled with match-winners in their line-ups, both discovering breezy options in the top order in Venkatesh Iyer
and KS Bharat
- and both having captains who haven't been piling up the runs as they normally would.
Virat Kohli has 168 runs in seven games in the UAE leg, bolstered by two fifties in the first three of those. The last four have yielded only 59 runs. His strike rate's been 117.48, and not too much higher even during his half-centuries. However, Kohli's returns look gargantuan when compared to Eoin Morgan's in the UAE leg this year: a measly 32 runs in six innings, reaching double figures for the first time in Knight Riders' last league game where he finished unbeaten on 13. He's also been considerably slower than a run a ball, striking at 82.05.
That they have come so far despite these numbers from key batters is a credit to both teams. But for one of them, the journey will end tomorrow.
In the news
The biggest question ahead of this game is Andre Russell
's fitness. As of two days ago, Knight Riders chief mentor David Hussey said Russell would be "pushing hard" to get fit for the playoffs, while Morgan took solace from Russell's ability to heal quickly
from injuries. The last time these two sides met, Russell yorked AB de Villiers first-ball, and his legendary six-hitting ability has often found an extra gear against Royal Challengers. But will Russell be fit? We'll know only at toss time. Shakib Al Hasan has been a good addition to the XI, but really, there's no replacing Russell.
Royal Challengers have no injury worries, and having won a stirring last league game against the table-topping Delhi Capitals, might not want to change their XI. George Garton
hasn't had the best returns, and there will be the temptation to bring in Dushmantha Chameera or Kyle Jamieson, but Garton's changes of pace might suit the Sharjah pitch.
Kolkata Knight Riders: 1 Shubman Gill, 2 Venkatesh Iyer, 3 Nitish Rana, 4 Rahul Tripathi, 5 Dinesh Karthik (wk), 6 Eoin Morgan (capt), 7 Andre Russell/Shakib Al Hasan, 8 Sunil Narine, 9 Lockie Ferguson, 10 Varun Chakravarthy, 11 Shivam Mavi.
Royal Challengers Bangalore: 1 Virat Kohli (capt), 2 Devdutt Padikkal, 3 KS Bharat (wk), 4 Glenn Maxwell, 5 AB de Villiers, 6 Dan Christian, 7 Shahbaz Ahmed, 8 George Garton, 9 Harshal Patel, 10 Mohammed Siraj, 11 Yuzvendra Chahal.
Bowl spin to Virat Kohli. In the UAE leg of IPL 2021, Kohli has faced 47 balls of spin, and while he's not been dismissed, he's scored only 42 runs off these. In Varun Chakravarthy, Sunil Narine and Shakib, if he plays, Knight Riders have the men to tie Kohli down in the powerplay and middle overs. And bowling spin first up might be a smart ploy from another point of view too, because… ...Glenn Maxwell has been devastatingly good this IPL, and particularly against spin in the middle overs. In the UAE leg, he's hit 101 runs off 63 balls of middle-overs spin, and been dismissed just once. In comparison, against pace bowlers he's made 80 off 74 in this period. That's not to say Maxwell has struggled against pace - at the death he's carted them for 87 runs in 43 balls. And if Knight Riders front-load spin against Kohli, Royal Challengers always have the option of sending Maxwell in at No. 3 to disrupt that plan.
Stats that matter
Mohammed Siraj is one wicket away from getting to 100 in T20 games. He's got 99 wickets in 81 games so far.
- In games in Sharjah this IPL, the team that has scored more in the powerplay has always won the match. It's been much easier to score against the hard, new ball with only two fielders out. Maximising that phase will be top priority for both teams.
Saurabh Somani is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo