Kolkata Knight Riders' dominant bowling performance to bundle Royal Challengers Bangalore out for 92 showed us two things. One, that they needn't load their team up with six or seven specialist bowlers, something that has been a feature over the last two seasons. And two, that this bowling composition in Abu Dhabi could be their way back into qualifiers contention.
During the innings break, Ian Bishop said on ESPNcricinfo's T20 Time Out that Andre Russell's bowling abilities haven't been utilised properly by T20 teams around the world. The backdrop to this, of course, was Russell finishing with figures of 3 for 9 - with an AB de Villiers golden duck featuring in there.
At Knight Riders, Russell has been predominantly used as a death-overs bowler in the last two seasons. That has come down to them preferring six bowlers - look at their last game against Royal Challengers as an example - which has often meant two overs at best for Russell. This has also contributed to a shorter batting line-up that - to paraphrase their head coach Brendon McCullum - has played with a fear of failure.
In Pat Cummins' absence, Knight Riders were covered on the bowling front with Lockie Ferguson, but Cummins was also slated to be their No. 7, so batting reinforcements needed to follow. In going with an extra batter in Venkatesh Iyer to cover for that, they had to force their own hand and play Russell as a designated fifth bowler, meaning he would have to bowl in the middle overs as well.
Russell does that often outside of the IPL. Since the start of 2020, he has bowled 348 balls in the middle overs for 20 wickets at an economy of 8.01, and 265 balls for 20 wickets at the death; in the same period for Knight Riders, he had bowled 48 balls for one wicket in the middle overs, and 108 balls at the death for 12 wickets before the Royal Challengers game.
Outside of his recent fitness concerns, Russell has two key abilities to be a wicket-taker in the middle overs: awkward lengths, sharp bouncers, and yorkers at pace. The team's rejig for the second half of the season is only a game old, but the trust in Russell's bowling abilities has already paid off in more ways than one, not least because they could introduce a fearless, young batter at the top.
Knight Riders came into the second half in seventh place, and need a string of wins to think of the qualifiers. On the evidence of that first game, they've made a stride towards that with their selection; outside of that, though, there is another major factor that could help them: the venue allotment.
Their next two games are also in Abu Dhabi, where they've won five out nine games and tied one since the start of 2020. Only Mumbai Indians - their next opponents - have a better record at the venue with six wins in eight games. If Knight Riders could have asked for one thing to help turn around their first-half performances, it would be game time in Abu Dhabi.
Eoin Morgan said at the post-match press conference that he had found the pitch to be more suited to fast bowling than spin. But it helps that Knight Riders have the two best mystery spinners in the league in their XI.
Varun Chakravarthy benefitted from the damage done up front, with a Player-of-the-Match performance for his four wickets. In eight innings at Abu Dhabi, he now has 12 wickets at an economy of 6.12. At the other end was Sunil Narine, who conceded 20 in his four overs, and has 11 wickets in nine innings at Abu Dhabi where he goes at 6.69.
The IPL is a tough league in which to play catch-up at the back end, and Knight Riders appear to be well set up for that phase; they have the best net run-rate of the teams in the bottom four, they have a favoured venue to try and pick up points before things can get tight, and they seem to have committed to an aggressive combination with bat and ball. A win against Mumbai will take Knight Riders ahead of them, and if that happens, we could well see the start of a rollicking comeback.
(with inputs from Gaurav Sundararaman)