How sustainable is KKR's innovative high-risk approach?

The team continues to push the boundaries of T20 cricket, but to have the right plans and attitude is only half the job

Sidharth Monga
Sidharth Monga
Kolkata Knight Riders are the laboratory of T20 cricket. If there is an entity called a T20 hipster, they must find themselves drawn to Knight Riders. They do T20 the way many on the outside believe T20 ought to be done. The many on the outside have little to lose, though, which is what makes Knight Riders a commendable team. They continue to innovate and push the way those on the outside might but with skin in the game.
Knight Riders' batters play a certain role and get out, their bowlers are their "point-of-difference" players, they believe in hitting boundaries, they play some of the worst fielders because they are match-winners, they turn Sunil Narine into an opening batter, they invest heavily in mystery spin, left-arm wristspin and wristspin.
Look at some of the numbers. They have bowled 2359 balls of spin in the powerplay, the next highest is 1370. They have bowled 1333 balls of spin at the death, with the next highest 770. No team has employed as much left-arm wristspin as them, through Kuldeep Yadav and Brad Hogg. The two even played together. They have two mystery spinners playing together this year, having backed them during their tough times.
Since their now-coach Brendon McCullum lit up the opening night of the IPL with that unbeaten 158 back in 2008, no other Knight Riders batter has scored a century; certain batters alone have scored more in losing causes in the IPL. No team that has played all seasons of the IPL has scored fewer half-centuries than Knight Riders' batters. Their first instinct with anchor batters is likely to be to use them as a failsafe, at No. 7.
Over the years they have tempered their approach at places. Shubman Gill's strike-rate of 123 as opener has been given uncharacteristic tolerance, for one. Pat Cummins was preferred to Lockie Ferguson despite the latter's better record in the format perhaps to justify the price tag on Cummins.
By and large, though, Knight Riders have stayed true to their philosophy. They have scored 62.6% of their runs in the IPL in boundaries, Mumbai at 60.2 are the only team in the 60s. No other team has had a season where they have taken fewer than five balls to hit a boundary; Knight Riders have had two.
This year's turnaround has been fashioned by typical Knight Riders moves. Their highest run-getter and wicket-taker this year were wasted by their previous teams, and were typical Knight Riders players. Varun Chakravarthy is an injury-prone ordinary fielder who can't bat. R Ashwin picked him out of the Tamil Nadu Premier League and took him to Kings XI Punjab, but struggled to convince the owners of his bowling genius. India wouldn't pick him because he couldn't clear their fitness tests. Knight Riders got him, backed his mystery spin, and he and Narine are a terror now. His performances with the team have put him in India's World Cup squad.
Rahul Tripathi was a T20 hipster's batter if ever there was one when he debuted for Rising Pune Supergiants. Opening the innings, he would lash out at everything in the powerplay, and lash out extra hard outside the powerplay. For his role was to maximise the powerplay, but after that bat like every ball is his last because they didn't want to slow down with more proficient batters to follow. When Pune were done with the IPL, Rajasthan Royals for some reason tried to turn him into a lower-middle-order batter.
Tripathi, and Royals, went nowhere. Knight Riders again got him and found him a spot where he can be most effective. On his part, Tripathi has worked on his game and improved in the middle overs and against spin. Among non-openers - openers have got themselves in by the time the middle overs start - Tripathi has the best strike-rate, 150, in the middle overs this IPL.
Venkatesh Iyer, the other man to inject energy into their campaign in the second half of this IPL, was scouted and groomed by Knight Riders themselves. They used him as a bowler in the death overs too.
Knight Riders play a high-risk game, which many on the outside believe is how T20 should be played, but with that have come their share of frustrations. In 2019, for example, they scored 66.42% of their runs in boundaries. Yet they failed to make the playoffs that year. In the real world, that matters. To have the right plans and attitude is only half the job. Their execution has not been that great. They might be one of the three teams to have won more than one IPL title, but this year is only the seventh time they have made it to the playoffs.
If this approach doesn't consistently give them a chance to win titles, the owners will have less tolerance for it. If this is how T20 ought to be played, it ought to succeed too. That is why it is important that Knight Riders got it right this season, but to finish fourth in a league of eight can be seen only as job half done.

Sidharth Monga is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo