Last week's IPL victory was one of the biggest highlights in my career of working within elite cricket. Having been associated with the Kolkata Knight Riders from the first season, in 2008, I know this win was actually five years in the making. Not that we didn't plan to win every year, but for one reason or another, things just didn't click. People say that's the nature of this format, where any player on the day can win the match. However, we have proved that the team that consistently performs to its best will generally come out on top more times than not.
Last year we came close to a final berth, but our win now has turned these five years into an incredible journey and a steep learning curve - in both business and cricket operations - towards making the Knight Riders one of the best-performing franchises.
The Knight Riders played 18 matches this year, including the final. This is a lot of cricket and it was a challenge to maintain standards throughout. We took 15 domestic flights, each on average two hours in length, since Kolkata is in east of the country. Approximately 25 team practice sessions were held, including those in the pre-season camp.
Additional optional practices were also available for players who were not in the regular playing squad but still wanted to have a bowl or a net. In fact, the guys who don't get to play in the regular XI really deserve a lot of praise. They are all elite players in their own right, yet for almost two months they do not get selected to play. In the past, we have had international players who, for whatever reason, were not consistently selected in the playing XI and had to stay back in the hotel. Unfortunately pride often gets dented when a player is not selected and a certain negativity can creep into the team.
This year all our players, both domestic and international, remained positive. It also helped that Gautam Gambhir, the captain, made sure every player understood his role. Eoin Morgan, Ryan ten Doeschate and Marchant de Lange unfortunately didn't get much of a run but were all brilliant team men, taking the domestic youngsters under their wings at practices as well as back at base camp. I think we have finally learnt that having an excessive number of players in the squad dilutes team cohesion (as possibly occurred in previous seasons).
Not much is really said about the coaching staff except when the team performs poorly. But I can say that irrespective of the outcome this year, the amount of time given to all the players by the Knight Riders coaching staff was exceptional.
Certainly Dav Whatmore built a great foundation for Trevor Bayliss to fine-tune. The main guys to assist in the nets, Vijay Dahiya and Adrian Le Roux, routinely gave hundreds of throwdowns at each practice, putting themselves at risk of chronic injury. It got to the stage where I was advising them to back off. Yet I never heard them say no to a player. The legendary Wasim Akram was also very hands-on in the nets, unleashing his still lethal left-arm swing on our batsmen, while also providing technical guidance to our bowlers. In all cases, despite the repetition, it was obvious the coaches genuinely enjoyed preparing our players for the tournament.
Any guesses as to who did the most sessions over the season and worked on his fitness the most? Bisla. It's difficult to prove but my guess is that Bis' superior fitness provided the foundation for him to play the innings of his life in the IPL final
The area of health and fitness provided quite a few challenges this year. Obviously, underpinning the success of the team was the availability of the players for selection throughout the season. This year an upper respiratory viral infection spread through a lot of the teams. The Knight Riders were no exception, losing Tendo, Brett Lee and Shakib Al Hasan for a couple of matches at the same time. When players eat, travel and socialise so closely together, a contagious virus will spread easily.
I've always considered that injury or illness is part of a higher natural selection process, and luckily for us, the depth of talent in the Knight Riders squad allowed different team combinations to still win matches. It also gave opportunities to players to get some valuable experience in the middle during the pool matches.
L Balaji's hamstring injury is another good example of opportunity being created - Manvinder Bisla came in as his replacement, and Lee stood in for Brendon McCullum in the final.
The injury to Balaji was a personal disappointment but it highlights the challenges we all face in this tournament. Bala had played three perfect games after returning from his hamstring rehabilitation, but as mentioned in an earlier article, recurrence is relatively common. With the benefit of hindsight we have put it down to reduced opportunity to continue his rehab due to back-to-back matches and travel. Sad as he was to miss the final, Balaji played a key role in the season and we will see him back again during the Champions League Twenty20.
With regards to fitness, Adrian's records show that our players also did a mountain of work off the field. Supervised sessions in the gym were available more or less every day, which players were encouraged rather than forced to attend. In this respect, players were treated as professionals, and accountability or ownership of their preparation was handed over to them. Over the years the training system we use has become more functional in nature and the attendance is high because of its variety and efficiency. Any guesses as to who did the most sessions over the season and worked on his fitness the most? Bisla. It's difficult to prove but my guess is that Bis' superior fitness provided the foundation for him to play the innings of his life in the IPL final.
A lot of things have to consistently click for a team to win an IPL title. Sure, a little bit of luck is involved but so are hard work and a genuine desire to play for the team. Gautam's captaincy extracted the best out of all the players, and everyone wanted to win it for the owners, who have believed in and supported us since 2008. Oh, and having a Sunil Narine in your attack helps a lot as well! Let's hope that mystery continues.
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