A big reason why Chennai Super Kings have been as successful as they have is that, over the years, little has changed in terms of personnel. That's not something you could say about the new champions of the Indian Premier League, the Kolkata Knight Riders. Bar their owners and some members of the management, the team has seen a complete overhaul in five crazy years. Everything that could be changed has been.
But change isn't KKR's most distinguishing feature. There is one thing that is so different about Kolkata that it could redefine Twenty20 cricket altogether if the team sustains its high performance level. This is a team that has been built on bowling, rather than its batting.
Twenty20 has often been viewed as packing the team with a posse of big-hitting batsmen, and filling up the rest of the spots with bowlers. If you look back, hardly any team has played more than one or two bowlers from the overseas pack in their squads; of the four foreigners available, three were usually batsmen.
Kolkata is the only team that has played up to three foreigners who were good enough to bowl their quota of overs. In fact, in the final, the four foreigners were Brett Lee, Sunil Narine [both frontline bowlers], Jacques Kallis and Shakib-al-Hasan [both all-rounders]. And between them, they bowled 15 of the overs. Of course, it helped that Kallis and Shakib were super batsmen.
In fact, while chatting with Kallis soon after the league phase of IPL V got over, I had the temerity to suggest to him that he, along with some other Kolkata batsmen, had been guilty of scoring too slowly. The usually calm Kallis snapped at the question. "Not at all," he said, curtly. "It's the pitches we have played on. Our batsmen have scored at slow rates, but the same way, our bowlers have returned good economy rates."
Spot on, and therein lay the genius of the Kolkata campaign. If we take 8.00 as the par scoring-rate in the IPL, the Kolkata bowlers' stats provided fascinating reading. Every one of their regular bowlers – bar Yusuf Pathan – went for under 8.00 in the tournament. Among them, Lakshmipathy Balaji [5.40] and Sunil Narine [5.47] ended below 5.50, while Shakib [6.50] and Iqbal Abdullah [6.54], both left-arm spinners, didn't fare too much worse. Rajat Bhatia, Kallis and Brett Lee, their other regular bowlers, also ended below 8.00.
On the other hand, look at the Knight Riders batting. Of the top six batsmen who played regularly for the team, Gambhir scored his 590 runs at a strike rate of 143.55, but the numbers for Brendon McCullum [102.12], Kallis [106.51], Pathan [114.79] and Manoj Tiwary [105.69] don't look too impressive in the context of a T20 tournament.
It's almost like a team playing football with four holding midfielders. And that doesn't usually work.
It did for Kolkata though. A high-risk gamble paid off. And with Eden Gardens [or the other pitches] unlikely to change next year, maybe the team will give this tactic another try. As we saw on Sunday night, when the need arose, the supposedly slow batsmen could chase down 192 with moderate ease.
Expect a tactical reprise in 2013 then.