Consider this. Before the United Arab Emirates leg of IPL 2021, Kolkata Knight Riders had won just two matches in India – against Sunrisers Hyderabad and Punjab Kings. Except for the match against Mumbai Indians in Chennai where the KKR batting order ended up paralyzing itself, they got completely outplayed by the opposition in all the other matches they lost. At no point did Eoin Morgan's side look like they were taking the season seriously and a spot in the playoffs in May would've been nothing more than a distant dream.
Cut to October 2021. Kolkata Knight Riders have won five of their seven matches in UAE and with their recent mighty and handsome win over Rajasthan Royals, they have well and truly made their way to the playoffs. It's strange to think that if it wasn't for just one bad over against Chennai Super Kings and a couple of wrong decisions against Punjab Kings, they'd have won all of their games on UAE soil.
So, what has changed for the side that they look like a completely different team altogether? Let's get down to it.
The absence of Pat Cummins brings more balance
There can be no doubt regarding the greatness of Pat Cummins who's easily among the best bowlers in the world. However, his absence in the UAE leg of IPL 2021 has been nothing short of a blessing in disguise for Kolkata Knight Riders.
For starters, Kiwi pacer Lockie Ferguson has come in after inexplicably sitting out the entire first leg in the dugout. Ferguson's sheer pace, power, and accuracy have fetched excellent results on the decks of UAE and he has been among their go-to strike bowlers.
KKR have also played an additional batter in the absence of Pat Cummins. Cummins is a more than handy batter himself and his presence misled the team management into thinking that they could pull off results without enough depth in the batting order.
Form of Venkatesh Iyer and Lockie Ferguson
Neither Venkatesh Iyer, nor Lockie Ferguson had a single match under their belt in the first half of IPL 2021 that was played in India. Iyer, in fact, hadn't even made his IPL debut. Fast forward a few months, and both players have led the KKR resurgence spectacularly in UAE.
The 26-year-old Venkatesh Iyer who was previously almost unheard of and had rejected a job opportunity with Deloitte to continue in cricket has breathed new life into the dull KKR batting lineup from the first leg. He has amassed 239 runs in seven games at an average close to 40 and has batted at a strike rate close to 140. Iyer has also formed an incredible partnership with Shubman Gill up top and the duo have delivered with impressive starts in the Powerplay for KKR which has allowed them to go on the assault more easily.
Meanwhile, Lockie Ferguson has been nothing short of lethal for Kolkata Knight Riders. He has bowled four of the 10 fastest deliveries in the competition including the second and third fastest. Ferguson has also scalped 10 wickets in five matches and has maintained an economy rate of 7.90, a wonderful return for a fast bowler! (Cummins had an economy rate of 8.23 in the first leg and he had picked up nine wickets)
Sunil Narine getting back to his best
Caribbean all-rounder Sunil Narine has gotten back to his very best in this leg of the Indian Premier League. Narine's four overs coupled with Varun Chakravarthy's spell in the middle has been absolutely crucial for Kolkata Knight Riders during the middle overs. The spin duo has stifled aggressive intent from opposition batters.
Narine has also been impactful with the bat. Called to the crease at a crucial stage against Delhi Capitals, the 33-year-old smashed 21 off just 10 deliveries which swung the tide in KKR's favour and helped them secure an excellent win against a top side. He had picked up a couple of wickets earlier in the same game!
Greater intent from Shubman Gill
The transformation of young gun Shubman Gill as a batter has been as immense as that of his franchise Kolkata Knight Riders. Prior to the UAE leg of the competition, Gill's batting used to be a cause of frustration for KKR fans. Although immensely talented and with bags of potential, it didn't quite translate to the T20 format where Gill's strike rate was a massive problem.
That hasn't been the case this time around and the 22-year-old has batted with much more clarity and peace of mind. He has let loose when he has needed to and has held things well even in tense situations. Gill's partnership with Iyer up top has been an absolute revelation for Kolkata Knight Riders in this leg compared to the India leg where they had to experiment with their top order quite often (Narine-Gill, Rana-Gill, Tripathi-Gill).
The solid starts the team has gotten in the Powerplays has also allowed the middle order to bat with more freedom. Rahul Tripathi always shows plenty of intent with his innings and Nitish Rana has also played a couple of great knocks. KKR have also utilized the hitting power of Dinesh Karthik well and have promoted him in situations where they needed quick runs.
Can KKR go all the way in IPL 2021?
Having missed out on the IPL playoffs in the last couple of seasons due to poor Net Run Rate, KKR have nailed their NRR this time around. When they have won, they have won big and in games they've lost, they managed to get as close as possible.
Not even the most ardent KKR fans would've expected the side to go through to the playoffs after the horror show in the first leg. However, cricket is a funny game and KKR have got their tactics spot on since the resumption of the cash-rich league. They've defeated both Delhi Capitals and Royal Challengers Bangalore in the UAE already and had it not been for just one bad Prasidh Krishna over, they'd have also defeated Chennai Super Kings.
Luck plays a vital role in the knockout rounds and who knows, maybe this will be the third time getting lucky for Kolkata Knight Riders in the Indian Premier League.