Why Gambhir and Uthappa have clicked for KKR
The adjustments they have made to their techniques have made it tougher for bowlers to exploit what were once these batsmen's weaknesses
Kolkata Knight Riders is the only team in the IPL that has four Indian international batsmen in the top five. They also happen to be the only team with a permanent and successful opening combination of two Indian batsmen, and that has been one of the key reasons for their success over the last few seasons. Both openers, Robin Uthappa and Gautam Gambhir have laid a solid foundation, and incidentally both of them seem to have worked on their techniques in recent years.
Uthappa was one of the few young Indian batsmen who never had a problem against genuine pace. The faster you bowled, the faster they went. Uniquely, he tended to get on the front foot against serious pace and still found time to swivel to play the horizontal shots. He would not just go after the fast bowlers but his trademark shot included one where he would shimmy down the pitch and then go over mid-on/midwicket for sixes with a flat bat. Uthappa's comfort against pace got him an India cap and good IPL contracts.
While you will find many Indian batsmen who can hit big against spin, there aren't many who can hit quality fast bowling for boundaries, and so these players are prized assets in the shortest format.
In cricketing circles, it was believed that since young batsmen from Karnataka were exposed to the bowling machine at an early age, they were more comfortable against pace than their contemporaries. But there are two sides to the coin, and if batting for hours against a bowling machine prepared you well to handle pace, it also made you slightly susceptible on more bowler-friendly surfaces, because against the bowling machine you always play on a flat surface. A little bit of swing, seam movement or spin off the surface would get you in trouble often. At least that was how it used to be.
With Uthappa, the penchant to play with a flat bat became an obsession. The bowlers would bowl full and straight, and as soon as he missed the line, they would succeed. But you could also understand why Uthappa preferred muscle over timing - he didn't get to bat high enough in the batting order for long enough to cement his place in the Indian side. When you're playing at No. 5 or 6 in an ODI, you are forced to use muscle a lot more. Also, T20 was believed to be about using the bottom hand more, and he was playing a lot of it every season.
But after a few middling seasons, something changed. In 2014, he started playing a slightly different brand of cricket, which involved lots of shots down the ground, albeit with a straight bat. The bottom hand became less dominant, especially against pace while playing on the front foot. He would still shimmy down the pitch to the pacers, but now he was trying to maintain his shape and hit in the V. That was his most successful IPL season and he scored about 40% of his runs down the ground.
His success indicated that you could make it in T20 without bludgeoning the ball. There's something unique in his current technique too, for he's still putting his front foot slightly across, and when that happens, you tend to play across the line very often. Uthappa, however, has managed to get his bat around his front leg without going across. The really short front-foot stride helps but it still requires a lot of mental discipline to resist the temptation of going towards square leg/midwicket to balls pitching within the stumps. Earlier, you felt bowling fuller, within the stumps and bringing it back into him after pitching would give you a fair chance to succeed, but that's not the case anymore.
The only thing that might go against him (which has come to light in his few ODI appearances in the last two years) is the fact that very often his head is outside the line of off stump and that blurs his understanding of where the off stump is. While in T20 cricket, there aren't too many bowlers who will bowl wide outside off with two slips in, that line of attack with the new ball is reasonably common in 50-over cricket.
Uthappa's opening partner Gambhir has started this edition of the IPL with a couple of good scores, and he might want to credit his early success to his new batting stance, which might be an outcome of his visit to Western Australia for a few sessions with Justin Langer. Gambhir has opened up his stance, from toes to shoulders. There's nothing new about batsmen doing this while facing bowling from round the wicket, and left-hand batsmen face this kind of bowling a lot more. But in Gambhir's case, the extent of the opening of the stance has caught the attention.
Generally, while opening up the stance, you don't open too much, because that means the front foot does not go far across enough to get close to balls that are in the line outside off stump, and the bat comes down from the gully/point area, which in turn leads to the batsman playing across more than he otherwise would have done.
In the past, Gambhir has had issues with balls pitching full and coming in, as the front foot used to go a little too far across in the initial movement and that led to a few lbw and bowled dismissals. To counter that, he might have been advised to open up a little more so that the front foot doesn't go across as far.
While the new stance seems to have worked so far, the flip side of it is he plays fewer strokes down the ground against pace. In the first two games, he scored only one run in the V against the quick bowlers. It won't take too long for teams to push the mid-off/mid-on fielders a lot wider than usual against him. But if the new stance can catapult Gambhir's career to new heights, not scoring down the ground will be a small price to pay.
Aakash Chopra is the author of three books, the latest of which is The Insider: Decoding the craft of cricket. @cricketaakash