When the first half of Indian Premier League’s 2021 season came to an abrupt end, Kolkata Knight Riders were seventh in the points table, with only two wins in seven games. A turnaround as various teams have shown us over the years (KKR of 2014, most of all) was not impossible but to carry momentum in the T20 format of the game is probably the most difficult thing in the sport.

And as the 14th season winds down, KKR now find themselves in the final; driven by a special mix of belief, freedom and tactical nous. Their win over Delhi Capitals in Qualifier 2 was a nervy one but they got over the line thanks to Rahul Tripathi’s six in the end and that is what matters.

“Should’ve been a lot easier after the start we got, Venky [Venkatesh Iyer] and [Shumban] Gill set us the platform,” said KKR skipper Eoin Morgan after the game. “Dew came in and all, but hey, we’re in the final and we’re delighted to get over the line. Would’ve loved to win convincingly but Capitals are a very good side. Six off two, the odds were probably in favour of the bowling side, but Rahul Tripathi has done superbly well for us.”

Morgan added: “It’s a nice insight into our team culture - the young guys coming in feel free to express themselves. The backroom staff have created an environment for them to do this. With the squad we have, there’s expectation. Hopefully we can implement all that we’ve strategised. Venky Iyer idea came from the coach, my god, he’s a terrific player. Made the chase easy, looks like he was batting on a different wicket.”

KKR's Phase II run

Date Match Result Venue
20-Sep KKR vs RCB KKR won by 9 wickets Abu Dhabi
23-Sep MI vs KKR KKR won by 7 wickets Abu Dhabi
26-Sep CSK vs KKR CSK won by 2 wickets Abu Dhabi
28-Sep KKR vs DC KKR won by 3 wickets Sharjah
1-Oct KKR vs PBKS PBKS won by 5 wickets Dubai
3-Oct KKR vs SRH KKR won by 6 wickets Dubai
7-Oct KKR vs RR KKR won by 86 runs Sharjah
11-Oct Eliminator - RCB vs KKR  KKR won by 4 wickets Sharjah
13-Oct Qualifier 2 - KKR vs DC KKR won by 3 wkts Sharjah
15-Oct FINAL - KKR vs CSK TBD Dubai

The change within

The manner in which KKR have got their act together shows that sometimes little tweaks can change the dynamics of the team. There isn’t always the need to do something drastic. Some changes were forced – the absence of Pat Cummins forced KKR to turn to Lockie Ferguson and he has delivered. But the elevation of Venkatesh Iyer was a tactical masterstroke that has given them new energy at the top of the order. With the mystery twins – Varun Chakravarthy and Sunil Narine – clicking, no side was impossible to beat.

The biggest differentiator on the batting front has been Iyer. The ease with which he has settled into the opening role is an indicator of how the management has freed him with the pressure that usually accompanies a newcomer.

Iyer, who was the Player of the Match against Delhi Capitals for his 55 off 41 balls, is still not the finished article but his attitude is second to none... and T20 is nothing if not attitude.

“Doing what has been asked of me, extremely happy to have won the game,” said Iyer after the win over DC. “There’s no difference [domestic] to IPL, have come here and play the way I wanted to play. Delighted that the management asked me to play just the way I do. Maybe there is some extra pressure in IPL, but if you can handle that then this is a wonderful place to play cricket. For the past couple of games, I was restricting myself, trying to bat till the end, but I realised that wasn’t me. I wanted to stay in the moment and not lose out on the present. Once I got the momentum I thought this is the way I play and I wanted to go for it. .”

The great balancing act that Morgan and coach Brendon McCullum have managed is to get players to play the way they want while playing how the team wants them to play. In hindsight, this has got the team moving forward together. It has brought about the alignment that seemed to be lacking in the first half of the tournament. As McCullum had said, if you can’t change a man, change the man. And the change seems to have happened within for KKR.

Gill, Tripathi, Rana have all come to the party when their team needs them. There are no standout performers in terms of runs but instead, you have had matches where different individuals have put their hand up. The knock played by Sunil Narine against RCB was another example of this facet.

Even without the injured Andre Russell, KKR are a side that bat deep and aren’t afraid to keep attacking. They aren’t about one or two batters who have had a great season. Rather, everyone has chipped in. That is what makes them truly dangerous.

KKR batting in IPL 2021 (Avg)

Player Mat Inns Runs Ave SR
Venky 9 9 320 40.00 125.00
Rana 16 15 383 31.91 122.36
Cummins 7 5 93 31.00 166.07
Tripathi 16 15 395 30.38 141.07
 Gill 16 16 427 26.68 118.94
Russell 10 9 183 26.14 152.50
Karthik 16 14 214 23.77 131.28
Shakib  7 5 47 11.75 100.00
Morgan 16 15 129 11.72 98.47
Narine 13 9 60 8.57 133.33
Via ESPNCricinfo (min 10 runs)

KKR’s bowling has been miserly. Narine and Varun have worked a charm in the middle overs while Ferguson and Mavi have been good with the new ball and at the death when called upon.

The econony rates of Varun, Narine, Ferguson, Shakib Al Hasan have all been below seven and in T20 cricket, a captain is blessed to have such an attack. Even Mavi has an economy rate of just over seven. The bowlers have done their bit but this is where Morgan has been good too: marshalling the resources he has.

Pat Cummins (ER of 8.83) and Prasidh Krishna (ER of 9.11) were expensive and by looking for different options, KKR have struck gold. The use of Iyer as a bowler in some of the matches was impressive too as he surprised batters with his accuracy of the yorker. In the slower pitches of Sharjah, in clutch moments, the slow bowlers and the cutters from the pacers where spot on.

Morgan hasn’t had the best tournament with the bat but his bowling changes have been spot on. The opposition never quite feels settled because they also don’t know what mode of attack KKR might call upon.

KKR's bowling in IPL 2021

Player Mat Overs Runs Wkts BBI Ave Econ
Varun 16 64.0 410 18 3/13 22.77 6.40
Narine 13 52.0 335 14 4/21 23.92 6.44
Ferguson 7 26.0 168 13 3/18 12.92 6.46
Shakib 7 23.0 154 4 1/1 38.50 6.69
Mavi 8 28.1 201 10 4/21 20.10 7.13
Southee 3 12.0 95 3 2/26 31.66 7.91
Venky 9 7.3 64 3 2/29 21.33 8.53
Cummins 7 26.5 237 9 3/24 26.33 8.83
Harbhajan 3 7.0 63 0 - - 9.00
Prasidh 10 38.3 351 12 3/30 29.25 9.11
Russell 10 19.0 188 11 5/15 17.09 9.89
Via ESPNCricinfo (min 5 overs)

For now, though, KKR will know that their job isn’t done. Waiting for them in the final are the mighty Chennai Super Kings – a team that makes finals for fun with the ice-cool Mahendra Singh Dhoni at the helm.

The story of the resurgence will be so much more special if they can crown it with the trophy. But whether they can or not might come down to the two words they have lived by this season – the ‘belief’ that they can beat CSK and the ‘freedom’ to play as they usually do in the final.

All stats from ESPNCricinfo