Trinbago Knight Riders have surged to six wins in six games - with or without some of their key players - in CPL 2020. Opening batsman and spinner Sunil Narine missed Knight Riders' last three games because of a "bizarre problem" and former captain Dwayne Bravo was also rested for the game against reigning champions Barbados Tridents at Queen's Park Oval on Saturday. In that match, Knight Riders were left needing 87 off 44 balls with five wickets in hand, but current captain Kieron Pollard unleashed a calculated assault - 72 off 28 balls - to keep Knight Riders' perfect record intact this season.
Knight Riders' coach Brendon McCullum, who had also featured as a player for the franchise, attributed their success to the vast experience and depth in their squad. Pollard, Bravo and Narine themselves have played over 1300 T20s among them. In addition to the trio, Knight Riders have internationals Darren Bravo, Lendl Simmons and Colin Munro, who have all played match-winning hands in the league over the years. Knight Riders have also had tosses going their way on the tiring tracks in Trinidad.
"We've got some unbelievable experience within our side and we've got about two-and-a-half thousand T20 games to call upon amongst some of our leaders and probably three of the top-five T20 players of all time in [Sunil] Narine, Dwayne Bravo, and Kieron Pollard," McCullum said. "So, [from the] coaching point of view, you really got to stay out of the way (laughs). That's the secret of these guys, they know their games so well; they know each other so well. They're like a family as well.
"Obviously, they've had a lot of success over the last few years and they're very hungry this year as well to succeed. So far, it has been a good start. We've had a few things fall our way as well or in our favour I should say - we've won five out of six tosses and in these conditions, I think that's a big asset - but hopefully we can continue to keep the ball rolling."
In the enforced absence of Narine, his protege Khary Pierre and the other left-arm fingerspinner Akeal Hosein have stepped up with the new ball for Knight Riders. Pierre also did his bit with the bat, hitting a crucial six and then the winning runs for his side against Tridents last week. USA quick Ali Khan is nursing a hamstring strain, but 18-year-old Jayden Searles has grabbed his chances in the pace attack. So, are Knight Riders the best T20 franchise going around?
"The beauty of T20 cricket is that we were behind the game for a long period that day against the Tridents," McCullum said. "And one man can come out of the telephone box and put in a performance - we saw Kieron Pollard and those innings don't happen often. But, they can happen and we have since seen it from Nicholas Pooran as well; he single-handedly carried his team across the line. You got to remain on the task and make sure every day you bring in your best game to the stadium and that's the message which has been flooded throughout this team.
"All of our squad... the local guys are from Trinidad and the way they welcome the overseas guys into the set-up is magnificent. I experienced it as a player and now as a coach I get to oversee and I'd take this team anywhere around the world. They could be highly competitive, it doesn't mean we're going to win this season, but you could take this team anywhere around the world they'll be highly competitive against any franchise that plays T20 cricket."
"We have to find a way to overcome the challenge that those pitches can offer. The key, from a batting point of view, is to bring in an element of crafty game as well, invest a bit of time in the conditions and catch up later on in the innings." Brendon McCullum
The sluggish tracks at both Queen's Park Oval and Brian Lara Cricket Academy haven't been conducive for stroke-making. While batsmen from other teams continue to struggle - Tridents failed to chase down 93 last week - Knight Riders have found different ways to combat the threat posed by the used pitches. While Narine has been Narine at the top, Simmons made a measured 29-ball 32 to set the scene for Pollard's blitz in their last fixture. At one point, against Tridents in Tarouba, Darren Bravo was on 11 off 18 balls, but then he laid into the slower bowlers - Mitchell Santner, Rashid Khan and Raymon Reifer - to finish with an unbeaten 54 off 36 balls.
"It's not ideal that the tournament has to be played at one place because of Covid-19," McCullum said. "But, at least, we're playing the tournament and we have to find a way to overcome the challenge that those pitches can offer. The key, from a batting point of view, is to bring in an element of crafty game as well, invest a bit of time in the conditions and catch up later on in the innings. We've seen brute-force innings from the likes of Pollard and Pooran, but we've also seen some crafty innings from some proper batsmen too. The ability to shift gears is a real key one on these wickets."
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McCullum was also impressed with how fellow New Zealander Tim Seifert, a naturally attacking opener, has adjusted to a middle-order role in his first CPL stint. With local batsman Tion Webster filling in for Narine at the top, McCullum has retained Seifert in the middle order, and the 25-year-old has responded by finishing chases against Guyana Amazon Warriors and St Lucia Zouks.
"I know that his best game is suited to the top of the order," McCullum said of Seifert. "However, with the way our team is structured, we need him in the middle order. That's a perfect foil for the guys batting in and around - he is the kind of guy, even at age 25, he's got a lot of batting smarts and can adapt the situation really well. He's done the hardest thing in cricket twice - to hit the winning runs - and he has done it with an element of calmness. I think he has got some big roles to play for us in the tournament moving forward, batting in the middle order."
The playoffs format has been tweaked this season, with the team topping the league stage not having the advantage of two cracks at the final - the playoffs will comprise just two semi-finals and the final, and McCullum embraced the "risk" that comes with it.
"It is what it is - the thing is this tournament is not like previous tournaments. The structure of it is not like previous tournaments. Does it come with an element of risk? Of course, you can win every game in the qualifying period and come up against someone who is too good for you on the day in the first round of the knockout. That's what the schedule is and you got to find a way to adapt."