Dinesh Karthik has stepped down as the Kolkata Knight Riders captain, with Eoin Morgan replacing him. Karthik, a team statement said, wanted to focus on his batting.

The franchise made the announcement hours before their match against defending champions Mumbai Indians in Abu Dhabi on Friday. The Knight Riders are currently fourth on the points table with four wins and three losses in first half of the season.

Karthik had struggled for fluency in the first seven matches this season after shuffling around in the middle order. He has scored 108 runs in seven innings with a highest of 58, at a strike rate of 136.

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In a media statement, the Knight Riders said Karthik "wishes to handover" the leadership to Morgan "with a view to focus on his batting and contributing more to the team's cause". Karthik will now assume vice-captain's duties with the team.

Morgan, speaking to IPLT20.com, reacted to the development saying, "I was surprised as was everybody a little bit yesterday. DK informed us yesterday that he would like to step back and focus on his batting as he feels that is the best option for the team. It is incredibly selfless and it also shows a lot of courage for him to do that putting the team first ahead of him being skipper.

"So I'm delighted to continue the leadership role within the side. Obviously captain, and not vice-captain now, but hopefully will continue to work alongside our players. We are only halfway through the tournament at the moment. We've showed some potential. Haven't quite achieved majority of it yet. Tonight will be another good test, hopefully we'll be up to it."

'Takes a lot of courage'

Venky Mysore, Knight Riders' chief executive, said the franchise was "surprised" by Karthik's decision. Mysore, though, said he looked at the development as just a captaincy swap.

"We are fortunate to have leaders such as DK, who has always put the team first," Mysore said. "It takes a lot of courage for someone like him to take a decision such as this. While we were surprised by his decision, we are respectful of his wishes."

In 2018 Karthik was bought by the Knight Riders for INR 7.4 crore ($1.156 million then) and appointed as captain. Under him, the Knight Riders finished third in 2018 and fifth in 2019. Overall Karthik has so far scored 859 runs at a strike rate of nearly 146 with five half-centuries. However, he has been bothered by his batting position this IPL.

At the season opening media conference, Karthik admitted as much that he was still working out the right batting position with head coach Brendon McCullum. "That is something on top of our agenda as well. The coach is not letting me go where I want," Karthik said tongue-in-cheek, responding to a query about whether he would be batting ahead of Nitish Rana in the top order.

McCullum had said the Knight Riders had enough left-hand and right-hand batting options. "We got such world-class players in the likes of Dinesh and also Nitish so we can mix and match a little bit based on strategy. But that will certainly include … the skipper batting little bit up the order."

Why Morgan?

Morgan has been solid with the bat. Currently he is the second-best batsman for the Knight Riders scoring 175 runs at a strike rate of nearly 130.

Morgan is known mainly for his success as England ODI captain, especially the 2019 World Cup win. But he has equally extensive experience as a leader in T20s. In 88 T20s he has been captain, Morgan has won 39 matches, lost 45, tied twice with one no result.

Morgan was bought by the Knight Riders at the 2020 auction for INR 5.25 cr ($739,000). His close relationship with McCullum was highlighted as one key reason behind the franchise hiring him. But Morgan was brought in for the dual purpose of lending experience in the middle order and helping the Knight Riders' leadership group comprising McCullum, Karthik and Abhishek Nayar.

"Within any good side or great side around the world you got to have a number of leaders within the change room. We've got them in abundance," Morgan said. "We have a lot of young guys coming through that lead from the front: (Shubman) Gill, Rana to name a few… (Kamlesh) Nagarkoti has stepped up at different stages. And we have an abundance of overseas players to lead as well. So between myself and Dinesh, captain and vice-captain, we can be at the forefront of that, but the driving engine is the guys behind us."

The rise in Morgan's stature can be gauged from the fact that in 2012 he and McCullum were team-mates at the Knight Riders. Now he is an established leader, talked about as one of the best limited overs captains in white-ball cricket. Morgan himself has talked about the big difference since 2012 and now his belief in himself as batsman and leader has grown immensely.

"He's an incredibly dangerous player and probably the best middle-order batsman in the shorter version over the last two years," McCullum told the Indian daily Telegraph recently.

Mysore said the franchise was "fortunate" to have Morgan, who was "willing" to lead the Knight Riders. "DK and Eoin have worked brilliantly together during this tournament and although Eoin takes over as captain, this is effectively a role swap and we expect that this transition will work in a seamless manner."