After their defeat to Mumbai Indians, Kolkata Knight Riders captain Dinesh Karthik called the team "rusty." Not only was their most expensive player Pat Cummins pummelled all around the ground in Abu Dhabi, but their batting as a whole crumbled in pursuit of 196, having lost their last seven wickets for 75 runs.
Something was missing in both batting and bowling departments, and therefore changes were expected for the match against Sunrisers Hyderabad. The inclusion of Kamlesh Nagarkoti for Sandeep Warrier as a like-for-like change made sense since the youngster brought with him extra pace, but the omission of a batsman in Nikhil Naik for the addition of mystery spinner Varun Chakravarthy meant that the Knight Riders were taking their chances with a batsman less. It could have proved costly, with Cummins at No. 7 and Nagarkoti at No. 8 but as the game progressed, it was clear that the rewards were high too, as their (now) seven-pronged bowling attack restricted Sunrisers to 142, despite taking only four wickets.
At the top, there was a big shift from the plans they employed against Mumbai, where the new ball was shared by Shivam Mavi and Warrier. This time, Karthik went with experience, against the top-heavy Sunrisers. Sunil Narine bowled a tidy first over to David Warner and Jonny Bairstow but more importantly, Cummins was handed the new ball from the other end, differing from the Mumbai game where he bowled the fifth, 15th and 17th overs and conceded 49 runs.
On this occasion, Cummins troubled both openers with the hard Test-match lengths that jagged into Bairstow and away from Warner, while the balls from around the wicket to the left-hander left him scurrying in a bid to protect his stumps. Those were the kind of lines that made Cummins soar to No. 1 on the ICC Rankings for Test bowlers, and his persistence paid off when Bairstow inside edged an attempted drive onto his stumps at the end of four overs. In the third England-Australia ODI also, which took place earlier this month, Cummins had bowled Bairstow, so it may have been a plan.
Eventually, Cummins' first spell would last three overs , conceding 3.67 per over in the Powerplay. While it meant that the Sunrisers could not get a blazing start, somebody else would now have to take the responsibility of bowling at the death, which has been Knight Riders' achilles heel for the past two seasons.
It was a chance Knight Riders had to take though, having decided that their best bowler should face off against Sunrisers' best batsmen, while also hoping that the weak Sunrisers middle order could be handled by their inexperienced pacers. Cummins eventually bowled out in the 17th over, finishing with 1 for 19 at an economy of 4.75, which according to ESPNcricinfo's Smart Stats corresponded to a Smart Economy of 2.36 and a Total Impact of 75.35 points, over 116 Impact points more than the -41.2 points he had accumulated against Mumbai.
Knight Riders' other hero with the ball was newcomer Chakravarthy, the architect-turned-cricketer who boasts of seven different spin variations, bought by Knight Riders for INR 4 crore in the December auction. With Narine bowling two overs in the Powerplay, Chakravarthy had to bowl the overs Narine usually does, delivering three of them between eight and 14. In his debut IPL game last season, Chakravarthy had conceded 25 runs in six balls for Kings XI Punjab, but on this occasion, he conceded just four in his first six, keeping Warner and Manish Pandey on their toes with his trifecta of sliders, offbreaks and googlies. Off his seventh ball, Chakravarthy was rewarded with the wicket of Warner, when a ball that looked to be a legcutter skidded through and forced the Sunrisers captain to chip it back to the bowler in the form of a soft catch.
After the first innings, Chakravarthy said that he had specific plans for Warner which he had practised at the nets, a fact further cemented by the way Knight Riders head coach Brendon McCullum was congratulating assistant coach Abhishek Nayar after the wicket. His first three overs went for only 14, and despite an expensive fourth over bowled at the death, he finished his debut match for his new franchise at an economy of 6.25.
Chakravarthy's tight bowling also ensured that Karthik was not forced to overuse his premier wristspinner Kuldeep Yadav, who the batsmen were comfortably playing. Yadav bowled just two overs for 15 runs on the night. It also allowed Mavi and Nagarkoti to bowl just two overs each, which they did with full intensity, offering more control and pace in their short bursts with the ball.
Andre Russell, for the second game in a row, was the designated bowler at the death, delivering the 18th and 20th over. It would be deemed a success since he conceded just 16 runs in his 12 balls, especially because Sunrisers finished their 20 overs with six wickets in hand. Russell steamed in from around the wicket to cramp the batsman with the short balls, or if he went full, he went so wide that Wriddhiman Saha and Mohammad Nabi had to stretch out, often unsuccessfully.
What this seven-bowler strategy also did, was not allow the Sunrisers batsmen to settle. Karthik employed over ten different short spells of bowling in the match: Narine bowled two at the top and two in the middle. Cummins and Varun had splits of three overs each in the first 14 overs and one each in the last six. Mavi and Nagarkoti had two spells of one over each while Yadav - in the middle - and Russell - at the death - bowled two in a row. Although wickets didn't come by as often as Karthik may have liked, the unsettling nature of his bowling strategy meant that Sunrisers could hit only eight fours and four sixes in their 20 overs.
Knight Riders' chase at a rate of 7.15 needed them to be cautious, considering they went in with only four frontline batsmen, one batting allrounder Russell, two bowling allrounders in Cummins and Narine, and one handy lower-order batsman in Nagarkoti, but on the night against the likes of Rashid Khan and Bhuvneshwar Kumar, they cantered to victory after a brief stutter. In a tournament where more teams are looking to employ extra batsmen in their XIs to extend their line-up and give their top-order more freedom to play, Knight Riders took the opposite route to ensure their captain had more freedom with his bowling resources.
Whether the Knight Riders continue with the same template against teams that don't have such a prominent weakness in their middle order will be interesting to see, but that it's a strategy that worked against Sunrisers is without a doubt. Over the years, they've pioneered in T20 strategies that have flummoxed the most astute students of the game. This was just another one of them.