Saurabh Somani is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo
Andre Russell, one of the most devastating T20 players in the world, was deemed too much of a risk to play in the IPL 2021 final due to a hamstring injury that he picked up early into the UAE leg of the tournament. Kolkata Knight Riders coach Brendon McCullum said that given the occasion of a final, and the injury Russell had, the team "couldn't afford" to take the risk of playing Russell.
Knight Riders missed Russell's explosiveness with bat and ball, as Chennai Super Kings won by 27 runs to lift their fourth IPL trophy. Super Kings faced little trouble from the bowlers in piling up 192 for 3, and Knight Riders then found boundaries hard to come by, especially in the second half of their chase.
"Look, Andre, he obviously had a hamstring tear earlier on in the competition. He worked unbelievably hard to try and get himself available. There was still a risk there, and it was a risk that I felt in a final, we just couldn't afford to take," McCullum said at the post-match press conference.
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"Such is the nature of hamstrings, you're just never really sure whether they're going to be fully healed or not. It was just such a big risk. Look, in the end, we decided to go for the guys who had done so well for us to get us into the final. I'm really proud of all their achievements. It's a shame we fell short, but we were outplayed by a very good CSK side today."
Russell had played only three of ten games for Knight Riders in the UAE leg, with his last one on September 26, nearly three weeks before the October 15 final. In the lead up to the playoffs, chief mentor David Hussey had said Russell was "pushing hard" to be fit in time while captain Eoin Morgan pointed to Russell's quick recovery from injuries in the past.
In Russell's absence, the overseas players that Knight Riders went with were Sunil Narine, Shakib Al Hasan, Lockie Ferguson and Morgan. While the others had several crucial performances, Morgan's already bad form in the India leg of the IPL, nosedived further in the UAE. Overall, he made only 133 runs in 16 innings, scoring at less than a run a ball, with a strike rate of 95.68. In the UAE though, he had just 41 runs in nine innings, at an average of 6.83 and a strike rate of 71.92.
Morgan's form meant Knight Riders had to wrestle with a question several franchises have faced over the years: How to deal with an overseas player who's completely out of sorts but is also the captain, and thus cannot be dropped from the XI easily. Knight Riders chose to stick with Morgan, with McCullum saying that he had backed Morgan to come good in the later stages of the tournament.
"It's a really unique situation, isn't it? He was captaining out of his skin. He's captained as well as what I've ever seen him captain, as well as I've seen anyone really captain in a T20 competition," McCullum said of Morgan. "I thought he was driving the team forward with his captaincy. Unfortunately, the runs weren't there for him, no matter how hard he tried. We tried to put him in that position where he's been so successful, in those last five overs in T20 cricket right throughout his career. But unfortunately, it wasn't to be.
"You know, there's many examples over the years of guys who have struggled for form leading into big games who have then been able to find something in that situation to be able to get a performance. That was what I was clinging on to tonight, with both the captain and also the vice-captain [Dinesh Karthik, who had 100 runs in eight innings in UAE ]. But it wasn't to be. Those guys, they played their hearts out, they did their absolute best, and they just weren't quite able to get the performances they would have liked. In the end, I'm still really proud of everyone who bought into the vision that we had for the group, invested in what we're trying to achieve, and ultimately, took us on this journey which allowed us to have some great memories, but just fell short."