With five losses in seven games, the Kolkata Knight Riders could potentially miss the playoffs for the third year running. Their well-meaning current plans are not working and time is running out. Here are some things they need to address immediately to turn their season around
Failing to set the tempo
Since the middle of last season, the Knight Riders have gone with a top-three which has plenty of potential but is the most inexperienced among all the teams. Nitish Rana and Rahul Tripathi are both uncapped and Shubman Gill is far from being a regular in India's white-ball squads.
Very few IPL teams in the tournament's history have had a combined top three with only three games of international cricket between them, and the optimistic punt from the management has failed more than it has worked. Inconsistent scores from Rana, who has five innings of 22 and under, and Gill's average of 18.85 at a strike rate of 117.85 have been the two biggest concerns.
The alternatives - Karun Nair, Gurkeerat Singh, Venkatesh Iyer and Sheldon Jackson - are not too compelling either. Apart from Iyer, none of the others are regular openers in T20s, however, they may have the fire in their belly to show their worth. Perhaps, the Knight Riders could harness that.
The other option is to bring in Tim Seifert, the New Zealand batter, but that would mean axing an overseas player. Although the issue of inexperience doesn't get solved, at least a new thought process could bring in different results. After seven games for each side in IPL 2021, the Knight Riders have lost 12 powerplay wickets, the joint-most in the tournament. That along with a powerplay run-rate of 7.35 has hampered the side from setting the tempo early with the bat.
Brendon McCullum, the coach, said in a press conference recently that he wants his top order to be aggressive, which they have failed to do. He said: "if you can't change the man, you change the man." Expect a new top order for the rest of the season - the only question is what the personnel will be.
The Morgan question
The ideal scenario for the Knight Riders was for their top three to set the base for eight to ten overs, following which a strong middle order of Eoin Morgan, Andre Russell and Dinesh Karthik could change gears to set a big total or complete a win.
But with the top order eating nearly half the overs with very little on the board in most games, Morgan's been forced to look for the big shots from the get-go. However, he has struggled with timing and when he hasn't, he has fallen just before he could transition into his power-hitting mode. The lack of good scores from the top four has added more pressure on Russell and Karthik, who have also not been able to replicate their peak batting performances from 2019.
On numbers alone, no one would bat an eyelid if Morgan was dropped after scoring only 92 runs in seven games, but when he is also wearing the captain's armband, things get complicated, more so after the Knight Riders changed captains midway through last season. And with Karthik saying last year that captaincy hampers his own batting, the management will have to look beyond the obvious choice for a new leader. In any case - barring Rohit Sharma's 2013 run with Mumbai Indians - changes in captaincy do not rescue teams from dire situations.
McCullum has often stressed on role definition among the Knight Riders, so it's unlikely Morgan will bat anywhere else either. The side likes Russell to come in at the 12-over mark and Karthik preferred at the death, and with both struggling against spinners who operate in the middle overs, the captain Morgan is set to stay at No. 4.
McCullum: 'After Shaw's six fours, we were shell-shocked'
The KKR head coach on the lack of expressiveness in the batting unit, and on Russell's batting position
The Narine conundrum
With a new bowling action that no longer has the sting of the Narine that lit up the IPL in his early days, does he merit a place in the XI when he no longer opens? Runs off the bat, as a floater, have been few and far in between. And with only three wickets in four games, there are others who can potentially have a greater impact.
Although Narine isn't a shabby opener option given the current struggles in the top order, the Knight Riders may still move to replace him with Shakib Al Hasan. Although Shakib may not replicate Narine's batting strike rate, he is more consistent and there's little to separate in the bowling.
The other option is dropping Narine for Lockie Ferguson, who has the ability to be the enforcer in the bowling line-up by simply using his pace to trouble batters at any stage of the innings. That would also give the Knight Riders two express overseas quicks to torment oppositions, alongside Pat Cummins, and bring in one of Harbhajan Singh or Kuldeep Yadav as the second spinner. The third option is Seifert at the top for Narine, and add someone like Pawan Negi (or one of the two spinners) lower down.
Rethinking powerplay bowling plans
The original Moneyball team in the IPL, the Knight Riders have focused on match-ups. But that hasn't worked out well with the ball.
Take the example of Varun Chakravarthy against Royal Challenger Bangalore. With two wickets in the game's second over, he had given the Knight Riders an early upper hand. Yet, next over, against the new batter Glen Maxwell, it was not Chakravarthy, but left-arm spinner Shakib bowling, who could potentially get the ball to turn away from the batter. Maxwell ended up hitting 78.
Against the Delhi Capitals while defending a smaller total, it was Shivam Mavi opening the bowling - against the in-form pair of Shikhar Dhawan and Prithvi Shaw - and not Cummins, who arrived later to pick three wickets, an effort that came too late to have any impact on the match result.
Against Chennai Super Kings, on a pitch where Deepak Chahar ended up taking four wickets in the Powerplay, the Knight Riders bowled three overs of spin. The Super Kings openers quietly compiled 54 for 0 to set a strong platform. They finished on 220 for 3.
There is merit in their most experienced bowler Cummins taking the new ball in the hunt for early wickets, with Prasidh Krishna and/or Ferguson from the other end. Then bring in Shakib or Narine, leave Chakravarthy to control the middle overs, and once again use the Ferguson-Cummins combo alongside Russell at the death to close out the innings. It's conventional, and yet propitious. But the Knight Riders - more often than not - prefer taking the path less travelled.