Kolkata Knight Riders, Rajasthan Royals. They ended third and fourth on the league table, with not a lot separating them, after seasons that followed similar trajectories, particularly when the playoffs race intensified. As squads, however, the campaigns they went through couldn’t have been more dissimilar.
Fast bowlers aside, the KKR XI that will line up in Wednesday’s Qualifier is perhaps exactly the one their team management might have picked as their best XI on auction day, down to the batting order. This is a small but wisely assembled squad, full of trusted names, and who knows where it might have finished had Mitchell Starc been fit to play the tournament?
Rajasthan Royals was a less tested combination, partly because they were returning from a two-year suspension, but one full of exciting overseas talent. All that talent, however, took time and a fair bit of shuffling to begin firing. And by the time that happened, two of the team’s biggest names, Jos Buttler and Ben Stokes, had to be scratched off the roster.
The absence of those two names, particularly Buttler, is a handicap Royals will have to overcome in Wednesday’s Eliminator, as are a shortish middle order and a longish tail. There is the small matter of the venue as well. Eden Gardens is KKR’s lair, and Royals have an awful record here: only one win in seven matches.
KKR, therefore, have a number of advantages going into this meeting, but the fleetingness of a single T20 contest can minimise all of them. The Eliminator is as accurate a name for this kind of contest, and it’s anyone’s game to lose.
KKR won both their matches against Royals in the league stage, and comfortably at that. In Jaipur, an all-round display from Nitish Rana set up a seven-wicket win with seven balls remaining. In Kolkata, Royals collapsed to Kuldeep Yadav’s wristspin after a helter-skelter opening stand between Jos Buttler and Rahul Tripathi, and forties from Chris Lynn and Dinesh Karthik led the home team home with two overs to spare.
In the news
Neither team trained on Tuesday, with rain keeping Eden Gardens under covers. There is a 20% chance of rain on Wednesday as well.
Apart from Buttler and Stokes, who are away on England duty, Royals have also been without their mentor Shane Warne over the last week or so. He has tweeted saying he will miss the Eliminator and Friday’s second Qualifier as well, but that he would be back for Sunday’s final – if Royals make it, of course.
Kolkata Knight Riders: 1 Chris Lynn, 2 Sunil Narine, 3 Robin Uthappa, 4 Nitish Rana, 5 Dinesh Karthik (capt & wk), 6 Andre Russell, 7 Shubman Gill, 8 Piyush Chawla, 9 Javon Searles, 10 Kuldeep Yadav, 11 Prasidh Krishna
Rajasthan Royals: 1 Rahul Tripathi, 2 Ajinkya Rahane (capt), 3 Sanju Samson, 4 Heinrich Klaase, 5 Stuart Binny, 6 K Gowtham, 7 Jofra Archer, 8 Shreyas Gopal, 9 Ish Sodhi, 10 Jaydev Unadkat, 11 Ben Laughlin
In IPL 2018, Chris Lynn has only managed to score 121 off 131 balls against spin, while being dismissed four times. Sunil Narine has been explosive against spinners, scoring 138 off 66 balls, but he’s also been out to them once every 9.4 balls.
Royals will want to start with spin at least from one end, but they have to be smart about their choice of spinner. They usually give the new ball to the offspinner K Gowtham, but one of their two legspinners, Ish Sodhi or Shreyas Gopal, could be a better option against KKR. While Narine has smashed offspin for 76 off 28 balls (including 23 off 9 against K Gowtham) while only being dismissed once this year, he hasn’t done as well against right-arm legspin, scoring only 18 off 16 while being dismissed twice. Lynn hasn’t been dismissed by legspin this season, but his strike rate against them – as is the case with other kinds of spin – is below 100.
By opening the bowling with Sodhi or Shreyas, Royals will be able to hold back Gowtham for a contest he might relish, against his former Karnataka team-mate Robin Uthappa, who has only scored 33 off 33 against offspin this season while being dismissed twice. This while achieving strike rates of over 180 against both left-arm orthodox and legspin.
Stats that matter
Home advantage could be a major factor in this game. Royals have a 9-8 win-loss record overall against KKR, but have only won one of their six meetings at the Eden Gardens. This season, moreover, Royals have won only two of their seven matches away from Jaipur.
KKR’s players have played 50 IPL playoff matches between them, while Royals’ have only played 23.
Dinesh Karthik will reach the 5000-run mark in T20s if he makes 36, while Sanju Samson needs 39 to get to 3000.
Lasith Malinga (at the Wankhede Stadium) is the only bowler to take 50 or more wickets at one venue in the IPL. Sunil Narine needs two wickets to get to 50 at the Eden Gardens.
Royals’ fortunes could well depend on how soon they can send back Narine – this season, he has the best Powerplay strike rate (198.4) of any batsman to face 75 or more balls in that phase. He has made 252 runs in the first six overs this season off 127 balls, while being dismissed eight times.
Andre Russell has had a decent IPL without making as many match-turning interventions as his fans may have expected. Wednesday night could well be his night.
Heinrich Klaasen struck form with a 21-ball 32 against Royal Challengers Bangalore, and also sparkled behind the stumps with three stumpings and a low, diving catch. He will still be full of confidence from that performance when he makes his IPL playoff debut, playing a crucial middle-order role in a team that lacks a bit of batting depth.