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What’s Going Wrong for Kolkata?

Ben Jones takes a look at the issues behind KKR’s poor start to IPL 2021.

Eoin Morgan Batting Struggles

Morgan is a top class T20 batsman, who’s been in spectacular form prior to this year’s tournament; since the start of 2019, he’s among the fastest scoring players in the world, accompanied by Andre Russell. On paper (the most dangerous place to play a game of cricket) KKR’s middle order should be among the most explosive in world cricket, and while Russell has broadly kept up his end of the bargain, Morgan has not. 45 runs in four innings, at a rate of 6.8rpo, is not in keeping with the Morgan that England fans know and love. 

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However, it is partly in keeping with the Morgan that IPL fans have become familiar with. His T20 pedigree is not in doubt by any serious commentator, but Morgan has struggled in the IPL. Across a large sample size of 71 matches, the KKR skipper has averaged less than 25 and scored at 7.5rpo, not disastrous but not the returns you’d expect of an overseas gun. Indian conditions have caused Morgan plenty of trouble, and while his captaincy is much lauded, he will need to bring some more of his broader T20 form to the party, if KKR are going to leave much of an impression on the league this season. 

Working out Shubman Gill’s role

Shubman Gill is clearly a talent. His performances in Test cricket have caught the most global attention, and that can ring alarm bells for players then parachuted into T20 sides – there is mixed evidence that his skills do translate into shorter formats. His 440 runs last season were made at just 7.1rpo, a worryingly low scoring rate, and his work this season has been accompanied by regular and increasingly loud calls for him to show more ‘intent’ early on. It is a fair criticism, given that his scoring rate since the start of last season is the slowest for any opening batsman (min 5 innings) barring Aaron Finch, who was bombed out of the RCB squad and not subsequently picked up by any other side.

 However, there are underlying numbers which suggest Gill’s issues can be solved with tweaks, rather than an overhaul. His Timing Rating last season (130) is right up there with the best in the league, and his false shot percentage in IPL is 9% – the lowest for anyone in the history of the league (min 1000 runs). While security isn’t a quality you need for every batsman in a T20 side, working out how to use a player with such extreme skills is an obviously exciting challenge for any T20 captain or coach.

You can look at that record and be concerned about the scoring rate, or you can look at the most controlled batsman the tournament has ever seen and be impressed he’s still going at 7.5rpo. With a cluster of explosive finishers below him, Gill playing the role of anchor is a sensible use of his skills. Brendon McCullum, when interviewed about this game, seemed to give suggestion that he wasn’t happy with his batsman’s intent, and Morgan has made similar sounds throughout the last fortnight. Chances are they are referring to Gill – they need to clarify his role, what he’s meant to be doing and what he’s not meant to be doing, as soon as possible.

Poor Domestic Quicks

This KKR side is clearly built with spin in mind. Varun Chakravarthy, Sunil Narine, Harbhajan Singh, Shakib al Hasan and Kuldeep Yadav are all at different points of their form and age trajectories, but they are all excellent spin bowlers on their day. Morgan has embraced this identity wholeheartedly so far this season; no side has bowled more Powerplay spin than KKR (who’ve bowled 60% spin in that phase), and only Mumbai have bowled more spin overall.

The counter to all that, is that KKR seam attack is not particularly good. Domestically, there is promise – the potential of Shivam Mavi and Kamlesh Nagarkoti – but there is also the well established face of Prasidh Krishna, who has underwhelmed in this format. Pat Cummins is a world class red ball bowler, but he’s still finding his way in T20 cricket, and is finding it quite slowly. The sum total is that this season KKR’s pace attack has the worst economy, and the second worst strike rate. Overcoming that poor domestic core (KKR’s Indian seamers have the second worst bowling average of any side this mega auction cycle) has proved very difficult, and it’s hindered their performance.

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However, unlike many sides, they do have a genuine option off the bench. Lockie Ferguson, the Kiwi who comes with a badge saying Fastest In The World, could find his way into the XI in place of either Sunil Narine or Cummins himself – though more likely the former. Match Cummins and Ferguson with the overseas batting of Morgan and Russell, and KKR have an obvious overseas spine which allows them to use their excellent domestic spinners more effectively.

Poor Catching

Fielding isn’t the be-all and end-all in T20 cricket, and is invariably used as an excuse by coaches reluctant to turn the torch on their batsmen and bowlers. T20 fielding is essentially two things – catches outside the slips, and stops in the ring. However, KKR are failing in one aspect of that quite significantly. Just 76% of their chances have been caught this season, the second worst of any side. While the fact Chennai Super Kings are only just ahead of them should be a cause of comfort (given at the time of writing, CSK are second in the table), when you’re struggling in the primary aspects of the game, fielding can save you. Rajasthan’s catching was excellent on Saturday night, as was their in-fielding – when things aren’t clicking with bat and ball, the fielding needs to come into its own. For Kolkata, that has not been the case.

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There is still plenty of time for Morgan and McCullum to pull this season around. Beat Punjab Kings on Monday and you’re on two wins from six matches, a faltering but not disastrous start. The typical benchmark for qualification is seven wins, so it’s likely that KKR would need to win five of their remaining eight matches – tough, but again not out of the question given that talent in the squad. The form of Russell is encouraging, as is Chakravarthy, and the classic Matchup-Morgan captaincy is still very much in play if that’s something you value. You would imagine, given the set-up above Morgan and the unusual nature of both this season and the previous one, that he would be given the opportunity to reshape the squad at the upcoming mega auction, but in the short term, he’s faced with one of the toughest challenges of his captaincy career – plotting a route to the Play Offs, after one win in five matches.

Ben Jones is an analyst at CricViz.

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