Injuries and defeats have left Kolkata Knight Riders, the defending champions of the Indian Premier League, at a precarious position going into the latter stages of the competition this season. When they take on Chennai Super Kings at the MA Chidambaram Stadium in Chennai on Sunday (April 28), the venue should inspire them enough to put up a fight and turn the tide.
Last year they beat Chennai in Chennai for the first time in the league stages, and then returned to win the title by chasing down 191 runs in a thrilling contest. A lot has changed since then, though.
The six-wicket win against Kings XI Punjab on Friday may have brought an end to Kolkata's three-match losing streak and kept them alive in the tournament but the unavailability of Laxmi Ratan Shukla, for the remainder of the season, and Manoj Tiwary, for at least a week, due to injuries has further thinned down their resources. Jacques Kallis, the Man of the Match in the match against Punjab, has also had fitness issues, leaving the team management in a quandary.
With three wins in eight games, the equation is simple. They have to win at least six of their remaining eight matches and hope for a few other results to go in their favour to remain in contention for a place in the final four. Manvinder Singh Bisla's unbeaten 89 in the final last year had scripted their triumph. His return to form with a half-century against Punjab is good news.
That he got back into the team was because of Tiwary's injury, but by making the most of the opportunity Bisla has addressed the opening woes for the moment at least. Gautam Gambhir has been in prolific form with three half-centuries against his name but only one 50-run opening-wicket partnership and frequent top-order failures have led the other batsmen to curb their natural instincts and play defensively.
The inconsistency of Yusuf Pathan and the management's inability to find the right combination of Indian players has put additional pressure on Kallis. While Kallis has held the innings, a role he is meant to do, on three occasions, other than Eoin Morgan none has succeeded in pushing the accelerator in times of need.
Kolkata would do good to remember that in their home game against Chennai earlier in the season, which the visitors won by four wickets, they lost nine wickets for 73 runs after getting off to a flying start. To avoid a repeat of such sorts it will be crucial for Gambhir to play the sheet anchor and set the stage for Morgan.
Kolkata's bowling has been pretty one-dimensional. Rajat Bhatia has provided the occasional breakthrough, Kallis has been good in patches, Sachithra Senanayake is still finding his way in the league and L Balaji has been expensive in the death overs. The over-dependence on Sunil Narine has forced Gambhir to use up the West Indian's quota of overs much earlier than he would like, as was evident against Mumbai Indians. Smart opponents have played him out and attacked the rest of the bowlers. If Chennai repeat the ploy like they did a week ago, Kolkata will find it very hard to pull things back.
Chennai may have won four games on the trot to place themselves second on the points table but they are still far away from putting up complete performances on the field, something Steve Rixon, the fielding coach of the side, stressed on after their win against Sunrisers Hyderabad on Thursday.
Michael Hussey's terrific form and the wins have given M Vijay an extra bit of time but, from the team's point of view, he will be desperate to return to form and play a long innings. Suresh Raina too has been guilty of throwing away his wicket in three of his seven innings. While Subramaniam Badrinath has made two significant contributions in his three innings, the top order has not delivered as a collective unit, putting the likes of Ravindra Jadeja, Mahendra Singh Dhoni and Dwayne Bravo under pressure to snatch victories from the jaws of defeat.
The injury status of Albie Morkel and Dirk Nannes is still unclear. The onus to lead the attack, thus, will once again rest on the shoulders of R Ashwin, who has been Chennai's best bowler in the season. While Chennai, backed by a superlative fielding unit, have largely bowled to a plan, they have leaked away far too many runs in the last four overs in recent matches. Against Kolkata it would not be a bad option to keep an over of Ashwin, who has been largely bowled out by the 15th over, for the business end of the innings.
While Chennai's objective will be to build on the momentum and work out the chinks in the armour on their way to the top of the table, Kolkata will hope to win and take it one game at a time from there on.
Chennai Super Kings: Mahendra Singh Dhoni (capt, wk), Murali Vijay, Michael Hussey, Suresh Raina, Subramaniam Badrinath, Ravindra Jadeja, Dwayne Bravo, Ravichandran Ashwin, Jason Holder, Chris Morris, Mohit Sharma, Albie Morkel, Dirk Nannes, Ankit Rajpoot, Shadab Jakati, Anirudha Srikkanth, Baba Aparajith, Imtiaz Ahmed, R Karthikeyan, Ronit More, Vijay Shankar, Wriddhiman Saha (wk), Ben Hilfenhaus, Ben Laughlin.
Kolkata Knight Riders: Gautam Gambhir (capt), Debabrata Das (wk), L Balaji, Manvinder Bisla (wk), Rajat Bhatia, Sarabjit Singh Ladda, Yusuf Pathan, Eoin Morgan, Jacques Kallis, Sachithra Senanayake, Sunil Narine Iqbal Abdulla, Shami Ahmed, Pradeep Sangwan, Brad Haddin, Brendon McCullum (wk), Brett Lee, Ryan McLaren, Ryan ten Doeschate, Paras Dogra, Sumit Narwal.