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Unconventional wisdom could be the way forward for Knight Riders

Dinesh Karthik needs to think outside the box BCCI

It was only last week that Kolkata Knight Riders were perched at the top of the points table, having collected their fourth win in five games after beating Rajasthan Royals.

But, in the space of nine days, the have lost three straight games, and have slid towards the bottom half of the league. On each occasion, they have lost the toss, been asked to bat first, and have failed to defend.

With Knight Riders needing at least four wins in their last six games to ensure qualification for the playoffs, ESPNcricinfo looks at what they need to do to put their campaign back on track.

The Sunil Narine dilemma

Sunil Narine hasn't quite been the same bowler since he had to remodel his action, and his economy rate has ballooned from 6.33 to 7.58 in the last two IPL seasons. Once upon a time, batsmen saw off Narine's spell out before taking on the other spin bowlers, which brought more wickets to the duo of Piyush Chawla and Kuldeep Yadav. That's changed.

The effect of that has meant that Knight Riders spinners have taken only 14 wickets in eight games this season, and have failed to build the kind of pressure they were known to - over 12 overs - in the past. And their death-over bowlers - Lockie Ferguson, Prasidh Krishna and Harry Gurney - have gone up against well-set batsmen, and have the second-worst bowling average (35.40) and the third-worst economy rate (11.17) in the final four overs while defending.

The perception this season has been that Eden Gardens is becoming into a graveyard for spinners, but Imran Tahir showed last week that if your other four bowlers are doing their bit from the other end, then wickets are still available for spin bowlers on the surface.

Narine's batting, too, poses a cause for concern. The occasional smash - like the 25 runs creamed off Varun Chakravarthy's single over and the 22 runs collected off K Gowtham - aside, Narine has not had the pinch-hitting impact that Knight Riders would have hoped for from him: 47 of his 84 runs have come in one innings, and if you take that out of the equation, Narine averages only 10.50. What seemed like a clever ploy three seasons ago is now beginning to show some weaknesses, and Knight Riders may need to consider switching their top-order batsmen around.

Rethinking Shubman Gill's batting position

That brings us to Shubman Gill, the hero of the 2017 Under-19 World Cup, who - all things remaining constant - is Knight Riders' designated No. 7. But Gill is a top-order batsman. It's a small sample size, but Gill averages 67.50 at a strike rate of 150 in the four IPL games he's played at No. 4 or higher, and has two half-centuries from that position.

When Gill was shafted up the order due to Narine's injury against Delhi Capitals in Kolkata, he smacked a sublime 39-ball 65 and batted till the 15th over, despite losing his opening partner Joe Denly for a first-ball duck. While Chris Lynn has looked to go into a shell when Narine has fallen early in the recent past, Gill's style of batting did not change despite Denly's fall. While Narine's pinch-hitting in chases helps bring the required run-rate down, Gill's proficiency as a proper batsman could stabilise a Knight Riders batting order that has heavily wobbled in two of the four games where they have been asked to bat first.

After Knight Riders' loss to Capitals in Kolkata, Dinesh Karthik said "Gill knows his role at No. 7" and that he was "a calm finisher" of games. But there is a case for a more conventional planning for Knight Riders when batting first. Even if Karthik is not convinced of Gill as an opener, Robin Uthappa could partner Lynn at the top since the Indian has seemingly struggled when the ball gets soft, and has a strike rate of only 128.65 this season.

Going horses for courses

One reason for Knight Riders' success over the years has been continuity. A small squad has often forced them to play that way, and, barring injury replacements, it has been common for Karthik to say, "we're playing the same team". While that helps those in the XI to be assured of a spot in the side and play with the freedom that comes with it, it also gives opponents a solid idea of who to plan for.

Prasidh Krishna did shine in the Super Over against Capitals in Delhi, when he conceded only 11 runs, but wickets have been hard to come by for the youngster. Just two wickets in eight games at an economy of 8.66 is a worry for Knight Riders, and they could tap into their resources to mix things up. Sandeep Warrier, the Kerala fast bowler who took a hat-trick at the Syed Mushtaq Ali T20 Trophy, bowls at around the same speeds as Prasidh, and not many of the IPL batsmen know much about him. And if Knight Riders want another option, there's 30-year-old right-arm pacer Shrikant Mundhe, who is yet to play an IPL game.

Similarly, since Narine is not among the wickets (nor runs), Knight Riders might think about replacing him with mystery spinner KC Cariappa. Cariappa's bowling style is reminiscent of the Narine of yore, with carrom balls, split-finger deliveries and the arm-ball at his disposal. With an overseas spot thus opening up, Knight Riders could play Denly as the extra batsman, which they need while trying to post imposing totals batting first, or go with two international fast bowlers in Gurney and Ferguson in the XI. If they stick with Prasidh and an overseas quick, Narine's absence also allows Carlos Brathwaite to slot in lower down the order, and we don't need a reminder of what he can do at Eden Gardens.

With only one home game to go - against Royal Challengers Bangalore on Friday - before two games on the road, Knight Riders have the opportunity to do something unconventional and surprise their opposition, a trait associated with the men in purple not so long ago.