IPL: Shreyas Iyer’s fitness poser as Knights look to end title drought

Team management has gambled big time by breaking the bank for Mitchell Starc

KKR skipper Shreyas Iyer (photo: @KKRiders/X)
KKR skipper Shreyas Iyer (photo: @KKRiders/X)

Gautam Bhattacharyya

When Kolkata Knight Riders splurged a whopping Rs 24.75 crores for Mitchell Starc, the Australian pace warhead in the mini auction in Dubai, the wisdom of such an investment was rightly questioned. It’s one of the biggest throws of the dice by the team which has two IPL titles in the bag and will be desperate to add a third one after an underwhelming season in 2023.

It’s been quite a while since the Shah Rukh Khan co-owned team, one of the most high-profile franchises, won the titles in 2012 and 2014. The team management has wooed back their winning captain Gautam Gambhir as mentor from Lucknow Super Giants but it remains to be seen if the former Indian opener can forge a winning combination with skipper Shreyas Iyer.

Come tomorrow (15 March), KKR will get down to business for a second bonding camp at the Eden Gardens where they open their campaign against Sunrisers Hyderabad on 23 March – a match that could see a face-off between Starc and Pat Cummins, his partner-in-crime in the Australian team. There is, however, some disturbing news on their front that Shreyas – who received medical attention for his troubled back while batting during the Mumbai-Vidarbha Ranji Trophy final – may be missing a few early games of the season. He did not take the field during the fourth day’s play at Wankhede at all, further fuelling speculations about aggravating the old back injury.

There are no prizes for guessing that an explosive batting line-up and the roster of spinners will be the core strengths of the Purple Army. The batters’ line-up looks a settled one, except England wicketkeeper-batter Phil Salt has been a late entrant in place of Jason Roy who pulled out due to family reasons, while the others are Rahmanullah Gurbaz, Shreyas, last year’s stand-in captain Nitish Rana, Venkatesh Iyer, finisher Rinku Singh, Andre Russell, Sherfane Rutherford and the free hitting Sunil Narine.

Even though Narine has not performed with the bat in recent seasons, he has consistently delivered with the ball in hand and will once again forge an awesome combination with Varun Chakravarthy on the spin-friendly pitches at the Eden. The Tamil Nadu mystery spinner bagged 20 wickets in IPL 2023 and will be hoping to enjoy another solid season in 2024.

Besides Narine and Chakravarthy, the Knight Riders have also acquired the services of Mujeeb Ur Rahman. The Afghanistan right-arm off-break bowler is the youngest player in the history of ODI cricket to take a five-wicket haul and he’s certain to add to the variety of options in their spin armoury though young Suyash Mishra, the leg spinner who was hugely impressive in his debut last year, may be preferred at home.

However, while KKR has bought well in the December 2023 auction, they have left a few holes in the pace department in terms of abilities and experience. They bought Starc all right, but released Lockie Ferguson, Tim Southee and former India star Umesh Yadav. This will leave them heavily dependent on Starc as the pacers they have added are Chetan Sakariya and Dushmantha Chameera - but both of them don’t come with much experience of playing on the IPL stage.

It's a no-brainer that Shreyas, snubbed in the BCCI central contracts list along with Ishan Kishan, will be keen to prove a point after missing out on the whole 2023 season with a back injury. A proven customer in white ball cricket who garnered 550-plus runs in the 50-overs World Cup, Shreyas will be hoping for an injury-free IPL this time.

A final word of caution: for all the hype around Dre Russ over the years, the West Indian’s form has been a bit erratic with factors such as injuries, lack of consistency and the burden on expectations seeming to weigh heavily on his big shoulders. It’s time he comes to the party!

Owners: Red Chillies Entertainment

Captain: Shreyas Iyer

Coach: Chandrakant Pandit

Mentor: Gautam Gambhir

Best finishes: Winners 2012, 2014

Full squad

Nitish Rana, Rinku Singh, Rahmanullah Gurbaz, Shreyas Iyer (c), Phil Salt, Sunil Narine, Suyash Sharma, Anukul Roy, Andre Russell, Venkatesh Iyer, Harshit Rana, Vaibhav Arora, Varun Chakaravarthy, KS Bharat, Chetan Sakariya, Mitchell Starc, Angkrish Raghuvanshi, Ramandeep Singh, Sherfane Rutherford, Manish Pandey, Mujeeb Ur Rahman, Dusmantha Chameera, Sakib Hussain.

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