There are broadly two kinds of franchises in the IPL - the ones who overhaul their squads almost every other season and those who painstakingly try to preserve their core of players and support staff for years. Almost every team in the first category strives to make it to the second purely because of the positive effects that accompany a settled side - the successful Chennai Super Kings model was an early reference point for other franchises.
Kolkata Knight Riders endured an angsty first few years, wrestling with parody blogs, multiple-captaincy theories and general chaos before working out the system. Their last big shake-up was in 2011 when they blew serious money at the auction, investing in players such as Gautam Gambhir, Jacques Kallis, Shakib Al Hasan and Yusuf Pathan, who continue to constitute the team's identity. The creation of a solid structure with a few enhancements, like Sunil Narine, gave Knight Riders two IPL titles, in 2012 and 2014.
In keeping with their trend of blockbuster performances every alternate year, they have begun IPL 2016 with four wins from five games and have won all three away games so far. They will be on the road for one more week, and play three more matches, before returning to Eden Gardens. None of this has particularly bothered Gambhir, whose focus has been consistency in selection. Knight Riders, along with Mumbai Indians, their opponents on Thursday, made the fewest purchases in the auction, only picking up seven players each.
"We are a franchise which does not chop and change too much. If someone doesn't perform well we do not send him back to the auction or release them," Gambhir said on the eve of the Mumbai game. "I believe in giving a lot of security to the players. In today's world where there is so much insecurity in every job, not only cricket, we have shown a lot of trust in our domestic players. All of us coaches and support staffs have allowed players to go out and make mistakes. I think that differentiates us from rest of the people."
An example of this is the manner in which they have handled Yusuf's form over the last few years - he has invariably begun seasons slowly and exploded to life in the crucial later stages. The easy camaraderie in the Knight Riders set-up was hard to miss in their practice session at the Wankhede Stadium. There was Sunil Narine, not prone to much animation, bouncing up and down to appeal for an lbw. Brad Hogg and Shakib ruled the batsman out and a few laughs followed.
"In today's world where there is so much insecurity in every job, not only cricket, we have shown a lot of trust in our domestic players" Gautam Gambhir
There were fielding drills near the boundary where Suryakumar Yadav gently ribbed Umesh Yadav after he circled around twice to drop a skier. Even the serious-looking Gambhir wore a smile as he bantered with a member of the Knight Riders crew. All the while coach Kallis calmly monitored the nets with a hand on his hip and a leg perched on a chair, while mentor Wasim Akram sat Yusuf down for a long chat.
Venky Mysore, the franchise's CEO, said the team prided itself on being a family. "We believe wholeheartedly that if you think about it as family you don't let people down - whoever it is we back them because it's family," he said. "When you start thinking about it that way, you fundamentally start on the basis that you want to treat everybody well. It has to be genuine."
Mysore said this philosophy was behind the Knight Riders sticking with players they picked through poor form. "Some of it is just having faith in a player because obviously without skills and performance they wouldn't be there," he said. "Of course [it gets repaid with gratitude]. It is not cricket only, it is human nature. When you know that somebody is backing you to the hilt the sense of responsibility grows even more."
He said Knight Riders made a conscious decision to retain as many players as they could, but it wasn't always possible. "A big part of my job is to stay unemotional about it [letting go of players]. Players do get emotional about certain other players they have played with," he said. "To that extent we have had a plan but we needed some luck also. In all fairness we have been lucky that ownership doesn't get involved."
Mysore said time spent together off the field played a huge part in shaping the team's ethos. "We do a lot of stuff together. Even last night we had a big dinner," he said. "The other day we had a private screening of Fan with English subtitles. There is a video that is going around on our Twitter page where we have reactions from players after the movie. All these are things you do only with people you are close to you."