Though it took many by surprise, coming as it did seven matches into IPL 2020, the announcement that Dinesh Karthik had stepped down as captain of the Kolkata Knight Riders and had handed the reins to senior pro Eoin Morgan was not an entirely unexpected one.
If an underwhelming 2019 season, which saw the Knights finish fifth in the team standings, had set off a buzz around Karthik’s leadership, the campaign this year has only made it grow shriller.
A report in The Telegraph said, citing sources, that pressure had grown on Karthik to relieve himself from the pressure of captaincy after a run of poor scores this season.
The thought behind the move, the report said, was to lend more strength to a batting order that has looked unsettled at most times.
Hinting as much, the franchise issued an official statement saying Dinesh Karthik had decided to step down as he wanted to focus more on his batsmanship.
The report said Karthik realised that the mood in the management wasn’t in favour of him leading his troops into battle anymore and hence stepped down before push came to shove. It quoted a source as saying that Karthik’s poor run with the willow had reflected on his on-field decision-making and the management wanted a change of guard at the earliest. Another said Morgan was brought back to the KKR fold as the franchise bosses wanted him to take over the captaincy duties. His off-field equation with coach Brendon McCullum was also a reason why the management wanted him as skipper.
What didn’t help his cause either was that barring Shubhman Gill, the KKR batters have struggled for consistency this year.
With Andre Russel far from his big-hitting best and Karthik himself in poor knick, their batting line-up has been rendered brittle, at best.
Hence, the sense around the KKR camp is that the urgent need to fix the batting ills may have prompted the move to anoint Morgan as the new leader.
Not to mention the impeccable record of the England limited overs skipper – leading the Three Lions to glory in the 50-over World Cup last year and a consistent run of wins in the shortest format, including the recent T20I series victories against Pakistan and Australia.
Once Karthik’s fate was sealed, there were hardly any doubts on who their next leader was going to be.
While the exact reason why Karthik was removed may never be known, the larger question that stares KKR in the face at the halfway stage of the glamour League is whether the team would adapt to Morgan’s ways to stay in contention for a play-off berth or lose their way.
The immediate fallout of the change of guard has been mixed as after crashing to a defeat to Mumbai Indians on the day Morgan took over as skipper, the Knights survived a tense super over to post a comeback win over Sunrisers Hyderabad in a Sunday blockbuster in Abu Dhabi.
Apart from bringing another two points to the KKR kitty, the victory also showed why the think-tank may have called it right by asking the England southpaw to don the skipper’s hat.
One obvious difference in leadership styles between Morgan and his predecessor which may not have escaped a careful eye is that while the latter often allowed the game to drift even when his tactics didn’t appear to work, the former doesn’t mind a shift in strategy or moving to Plan B before it’s too late. One of the criticisms that Karthik had to cop as skipper was his persistence with Sunil Narine as opener even when he clearly struggled to put bat to ball and putting himself ahead of Morgan in the batting line-up despite being in indifferent form.
In their first match against Mumbai Indians, the move to send Narine as pinch-hitter backfired as the Knights, in pursuit of 196, had laboured to only 25/1 in the fifth over when the West Indian fell for 9. The move to have him launch the KKR innings came a cropper again against the Delhi Capitals at Sharjah.
Needing to go hell for leather from ball one in pursuit of 229, the Knights had limped to 8 in the second over when Narine was castled by Anrich Nortje for 3. Batting ahead of Morgan at No.5, Karthik could only muster 6 off 8 balls. Though the England southpaw made a good feast of the chase, striking 44 off 18 balls, KKR eventually lost by 18 runs. The defeat left many wondering what would have happened had Morgan batted No.5, or even at No.4 instead of the out-of-form ‘Dre Russ’.
Even in the last season, Russel, while not naming names, had voiced his misgivings over his batting position. Clearly miffed at being asked to bat lower down despite hitting a purple patch, Russel was quoted as saying, “We have a good team but if you make bad decisions, then you will always lose games and that’s what we have been doing.”
While two matches aren’t enough to judge a captain by, Morgan seemed to have grown wiser from the defeat to Mumbai Indians in his first game in charge as he brought in Lockie Ferguson in place of Prasidh Krishna in the match against the Sunrisers, a move that fetched rich dividend as the Kiwi speedster picked up 3 wickets in a miserly spell and 2 more in the Super Over, taking the Knights to a thrilling win. The move to bring back Kuldeep Yadav, who sat out the last few games because of indifferent form, in place of Aussie off-spinner Chris Green, also fetched the desired result as the chinaman, while going wicketless, gave away only 18 runs off three overs.
One dares say the debate on who is the better bet to lead the Knights would be settled once and for all if Morgan can help KKR build on the momentum from the last win and pick more points along the way to seal a play-off berth and, possibly, its third title.