How KKR shaped themselves into the awesome class of 2024

Are KKR favourites going into the IPL final? (2:32)

The Timeout crew thinks the two best teams of IPL 2024 have made it to the final, but who holds the edge between them? (2:32)

Kolkata Knight Riders vs Sunrisers Hyderabad. You couldn't wish for a more fitting end to IPL 2024. It's been a season of redrawn boundaries, and these two teams have done the bulk of the redrawing. Eight of the ten highest totals in IPL history have come in 2024, and these two teams have been responsible for five of those eight totals.

Over the course of the season, though, a difference between the two teams has become more and more apparent. SRH have batted with whirlwind intent despite having reasons to temper their approach: they possess arguably the most dangerous top order in the competition, but on days when they lose early wickets, issues with personnel and depth can hurt them.

KKR haven't had those issues. Their squad is designed to allow their batters to throw away every last vestige of caution. As they firmed up their place at the top of the league table, distancing themselves further and further from the chasing pack, it became clearer and clearer that they had built a squad that was as close to bomb-proof as any can get in the fickle world of T20.

No matter what happens on Sunday at the MA Chidambaram Stadium, it's unarguable that KKR have assembled one of the strongest squads in IPL history, not just from the point of view of personnel but also from that of laying out a template for franchises to learn from.

None of it happened overnight, because this has been the culmination of a long-term project.

More of the same, but better
KKR finished seventh on the league table in IPL 2022 and 2023. In both seasons, they gave off the sense of a team trying to play in an idealistic sort of way without quite having the resources to pull it off consistently. They were, to put it simply, an inferior version of what SRH have been in 2024.

Right through this auction cycle - and even the previous one, when Eoin Morgan and Dinesh Karthik captained them - KKR have batted in a markedly high-intent way. They have the highest attacking shot percentage (45.08)* of any team this season, and they've only carried on from where they left off in 2022 and 2023. Their attacking shot percentage over those two seasons (41.50) was also the best in the league. Delhi Capitals and SRH have batted like KKR this season, but it's a relatively new way of playing for both teams. This isn't the case for KKR.

What's changed for KKR between 2022-23 and 2024 is the sense of structure and stability their line-ups have exuded.

You only need one statistic to sum up the stability KKR have enjoyed through IPL 2024. They used seven different openers in IPL 2022, and seven again in 2023. This season, they opened with Sunil Narine and Phil Salt in each of their first 12 games, and brought in Rahmanullah Gurbaz when Salt left on England duty.

A lot of this was happenstance, of course. When he joined the coaching staff and returned Narine to the top of the order, Gautam Gambhir couldn't have imagined that the move would bring a 482-run season with three fifties and a maiden T20 hundred. KKR didn't sign Salt at the IPL auction - it seems incredible now, but he went unsold - but as a replacement for Jason Roy; their team management couldn't have foreseen that Salt would light up the IPL with 435 runs at a strike rate of 182.00.

KKR have been similarly fortunate that nearly all their middle-order batters have found form at some point during the season. But the way their line-up is structured has allowed them to stick with a set of players and absorb failures.

This is in huge part down to the two world-class West Indian allrounders in their squad, Narine and Andre Russell. Which other team can call upon a four-over banker who also happens to be one of the most destructive openers in the tournament, as well as one of the league's most dangerous and experienced finishers who can deliver high-impact overs in the middle and death phases when required?

Because KKR have Narine and Russell, and because of the luxury of the Impact Player, they can enter match after match with eight batters and six bowlers. And if they happen to slip to 57 for 5, as they did against Mumbai Indians at the Wankhede, they can call a ninth batter off the bench without hampering their bowling.

When you're batting in a line-up with that sort of depth, you have no reason to hold back.

Plug the gaps
For all the intent KKR showed in 2022 and 2023, there were clear weaknesses running through their line-up. One that a number of bowling teams exploited was a vulnerability against the short ball that ran through their line-up. Take this chase of 177 against Lucknow Super Giants on a bouncy Pune deck in 2022: Mohsin Khan, Dushmantha Chameera, Avesh Khan and Jason Holder ripped through their top order in a spell of concerted short bowling and reduced them to 25 for 4 in 6.5 overs.

That was only the extreme example of KKR's frailties. Against short and short-of-good-length balls from fast bowlers, they had the worst scoring rate (7.67) and average (17.47) of any team across the 2022 and 2023 seasons.

This season, however, KKR have done a lot better. They have the third-best scoring rate (9.76) of any team against that kind of bowling, and the fifth-best average (29.00).

A lot of this has to do with KKR's pre-season acquisitions. Salt has struck at 189.70 and averaged an incredible 129.00 against short- and short-of-good-length balls from fast bowlers, and Ramandeep Singh has taken on that mode of bowling with great success for an end-overs hitter: his strike rate of 240.00 is the third-best in the league for anyone to have scored at least 30 runs off those lengths from fast bowlers this season. He's been out twice in 15 balls, but that's to be expected in death-overs contests.

KKR's long-term incumbents have also been excellent against short bowling this season. Narine averages 50.00 against shorter lengths from quicks while striking at 172.41, while Shreyas Iyer (52.00 and 133.33), Venkatesh Iyer (40.00 and 163.26) and Russell (29.50 and 203.44) have all done more than reasonably too.

It's helped KKR, of course, that they've played the bulk of their matches on pitches with true bounce, but if that's the way T20 is going, they're better equipped than most teams to take advantage.

KKR have only used three No. 3s this season, usually either Venkatesh (six innings) or Angkrish Raghuvanshi (seven). Shreyas has been their No. 4 more often than not (10 out of 14 innings), but they've been a lot less rigid with who bats at No. 5 (Venkatesh, Shreyas and Rinku Singh have all occupied that position at least three times, No. 6 (usually either Rinku or Russell) and No. 7 (Ramandeep seven times, and Rinku and Venkatesh a combined five times).

You may have spotted the pattern: KKR have tried to have left-right pairs at the crease whenever possible. Among all the right- and left-hand batters they have, they've also assembled a good mix of pace-hitters and spin-hitters. Ramandeep, Russell, Salt, Narine, Venkatesh, Raghuvanshi and Rinku have all scored 95-plus runs against pace this season at 150-plus strike rates, while Narine and Shreyas have done the same against spin, with Russell, Salt and Ramandeep also going at 140-plus without achieving the runs cut-off.

At most times, then, KKR have been able to send out the right batter for the situation and match-up in play.

Get the bowling right
This section is worth a standalone analysis, because KKR, for everything they've done with the bat, have arguably been the best bowling team of this IPL too. They have the best collective average (22.94) of all the teams, and the third-best economy rate (9.39), which is particularly remarkable because unlike the two teams that have done better than them, Rajasthan Royals and Chennai Super Kings, KKR have played most of their home games at one of this season's most batting-friendly venues.

Six of their bowlers, remarkably, have picked up at least 10 wickets this season, and this has been a triumph of identifying players with attributes suited to specific roles, and sticking with them. The same six bowlers have played the bulk of KKR's games, and they all have well-defined roles. Mitchell Starc and Vaibhav Arora swing the new ball; Harshit Rana and Russell hit the deck and bowl pace variations through the middle and end phases, with Starc joining them at the death; and Narine and Varun Chakravarthy control the middle overs.

Most of them have experienced fluctuations in form, with Starc and Varun in particular starting the season slowly. But KKR haven't chopped and changed even when bowlers have had bad days, unless they've brought in Anukul Roy or Suyash Sharma when they've felt the need for an extra spin option.

This has created a situation where bowlers have grown into their roles, and gained rhythm. When Starc bowled a match-changing spell in Qualifier 1 against SRH, a chorus of voices spoke of his big-match ability, comparing this performance to his displays in the knockout stages of last year's ODI World Cup. Then too, he had made a slow start to the tournament before bowling influential spells for Australia in the semi-finals and final. Big-match ability is one of those woolly, hard-to-define, quasi-spiritual concepts that may or may not exist in a meaningful way. It's easier, however, to say that given a run of games, elite athletes tend to gain both rhythm and a better understanding of conditions, and begin to deliver telling blows.

This is true not just of Starc but the rest of KKR's line-up too. Over this three-year cycle, KKR have established a clear philosophy, and they've tried to work out a combination of players that could make it work. It's taken a while to come together, but it has now, to thrilling effect.

*All stats mentioned in this piece are correct as of May 25, 2024, and do not include numbers from the final.