Should KKR continue with Sunil Narine as opener?

When Sunil Narine was first pushed to the top of the order, it worked like magic. He had a clean, uncomplicated approach to batting ideally suited for T20s - in its essence, it was a form of the street-cricket term "hit out or get out". When it came off, it gave the Knight Riders a rocket start that more-established batsmen could build on. When it didn't, the team was not too worse off because Narine wouldn't have used up too many deliveries anyway, and the batsmen to follow could carry on as per normal.

Of late, there have been more failures than successes for Narine at the top of the order, with teams executing their bowling plans to him: bowl pace, and bang it in short. As the table below shows, Narine's average (7.46) against the short stuff is far lower than against any other type of delivery.

The Mumbai Indians executed this perfectly in Narine's first match of IPL 2020 and on Saturday, against Sunrisers Hyderabad, he again fell to one that was shorter. Does that mean his days as an opener are numbered because teams have "found him out"?

There are several flipsides to that argument. First, the average number of balls Narine lasts when he opens is just over 11. When he's out for single digits, that number is five. Given the upside when Narine connects, sending him up the order is a risk worth taking, because even on the downside he'll be out within five balls anyway. Then too, his failure would require the bowling team to have specific resources and then execute their plans efficiently. Against deliveries that are short of a good length, Narine has been out just once in 73 balls. And against full deliveries, his strike rate is 202.6.

So, yes, oppositions are likely to target Narine with the short stuff, but there is a solid case for the Knight Riders to continue using him up top regardless. The numbers, so far, suggest the team isn't losing a whole lot even if Narine fails.

The return of Varun Chakravarthy

From being mauled by Narine in his first IPL match to stepping into the middle-overs role that Narine usually controls for the Knight Riders and delivering - it's been quite a journey for Varun Chakravarthy. He was bought for an eye-popping INR 8.4 crore, 42 times his base price, in the IPL 2019 auctions. But then his first over on IPL debut went for 25 runs, the most runs ever conceded in a debut over in the IPL. That remained the only match he played last season, with a finger fracture ruling him out soon after.

He might have thought then of the journey he had taken - being a wicketkeeper-batsman during his teenage years, going off to pursue a degree in architecture when rebuffed for selections, coming back to club cricket as seam-bowling allrounder, and then finally finding his groove as a mystery spinner after a knee injury. Given his IPL debut, some might have thought that was the end of the journey. However, the IPL teams still saw value in him, and he fetched a price tag of INR 4 crore (USD 563,000 approx.) at the IPL 2020 auctions.

Now, whatever happens from hereon, Chakravarthy will always have a comeback story to tell. Of how he came on and got David Warner with the first ball of his second over. Of how Warner looked like he was completely outfoxed, expecting it to turn when it didn't and tamely chipping a return catch. Of how he ended the match as one of the most impressive bowlers on the day, his stats including the wicket of the opposition captain and gun batsman, and an economy rate that was almost half of what he conceded in his first IPL game.

The middle-order problem for the Sunrisers

In their first game against the Royal Challengers Bangalore, the Sunrisers' problem was of middle-order batsmen not being able to stick around long enough to see the chase through. Against the Knight Riders, the problem was that they didn't just stick around, they seemed stuck.

In the last six IPL seasons, from 2015 onwards, the Sunrisers' total of 142 for 4 was the third lowest ever for a team batting first that has lost four wickets or fewer in its 20 overs. That they got this score with their big-hitters in Mohammad Nabi, Rashid Khan and Abhishek Sharma facing a grand total of 11 balls spoke of under-utilised resources. The Sunrisers will ponder the batting position of Wriddhiman Saha - if he is in the XI - after he struggled to hit the gaps or power the ball away. Saha came in at No. 4 and scored 30 off 31, which encapsulated the sluggishness in the middle order.

What can Sunrisers do to counter that? They could perhaps send someone like Nabi in earlier, with the licence to hit out. They could bring in Fabian Allen - T20 strike rate of 164.89 - as the fourth overseas player and have him float in the order, coming in any time a new batsman is needed after, say, the 12th over. Or they could bring in Kane Williamson and then bank on the top four to get most of the runs, though that will cut down one bowling option.

What is likely to not work is continuing to have their batting fortunes largely determined only by how well the opening pair of David Warner and Jonny Bairstow goes.

Cummins' comeback

Dinesh Karthik did warn people. "It is very unfair to judge him right now. He is just off quarantine, he got permission to come and play the match itself at 3.30-4pm. We are just happy to have him and I don't think this is a game where we need to judge him at all," Karthik said after the first game against Mumbai, in which Pat Cummins disappeared for 3-0-49-0.

On cue, this time around, Cummins took 1 for 19 in four overs, three of them bowled with the new ball. The Knight Riders had seemingly identified specific roles for specific bowlers, and their apparent plans worked with point-perfect precision. Cummins bowled 10 balls to Warner, all of them around the wicket. Since 2019, Warner has averaged 24 against right-arm pace bowlers going around the wicket, as against 60.44 when they go over the wicket. Against Bairstow, he stuck to his over the wicket line but the length remained short, or short of a good length, and probing off stump.

ALSO READ: Why Cummins - and not Gill - is the Smart Stats player of the match

ESPNcricinfo's Smart Stats showed the contrast in Cummins' performances between the last match and this one. Against Mumbai, he was the worst bowler, with negative impact points (-41.2). Against the Sunrisers, his impact points (75.35) were nearly double that of the next best bowler. His regular economy rate was 4.75 but his Smart Economy Rate - computed by looking at the overs in which he bowled, the batsmen he bowled to, and the Sunrisers' position when he bowled - was an astounding 2.36. Against Mumbai, his Smart Economy Rate was also astounding at 23.32. Let's just say, if it looked like he bowled ten times better today, that was because he did.

ALSO SEE: Kolkata Knight Riders v Sunrisers Hyderabad live score 26th September 2020