Morgan/McCullum axis of power comes under pressure as KKR underperform

Eoin Morgan took over the England white-ball captaincy in chaotic circumstances in 2015, too late to impact what was, perhaps predictably, a miserable World Cup campaign for his team. However, it was the inspiration provided by Brendon McCullum’s New Zealand side there, that convinced Morgan that an entirely new approach was necessary, with a policy of no fear – and no retribution – at its heart. The side and the approach that Morgan rapidly shaped, based on front-foot cricket, resistant to pressure and criticism, has taken England to their position of dominance in the limited-overs format in world cricket.

The coming together of McCullum as coach and Morgan as captain at KKR should make the Knight Riders an irresistible attacking force, but seven games in, a glance at the league table exposes the fact that things are not working out as planned for the pair. Morgan will need that famous imperviousness to criticism as many are questioning his tactics. McCullum has been stout in his defence of captain and tactics, but highly critical of his players’ ability to follow the script.

With just two wins, is it possible to pinpoint the reasons for KKR’s dire form? Could it be bad luck or the wrong personnel, or, just perhaps, is the approach fashioned by McCullum and honed by Morgan a little too inflexible on Indian wickets where spin can dominate and some of the world’s best seamers have learned the value of pace off and variation? Or, as some knowledgeable observers are claiming, are Morgan’s on-field tactics failing to make the best of the resources at his disposal?

An initial victory against the hapless Sunrisers – who yesterday bid farewell to David Warner as captain – bode well, as, batting first, Nitish Rana and Rahul Tripathi motored KKR to a competitive 187 for six in Chennai. The KKR attack restricted the Sunrisers to 177, taking the key wicket of Jonny Bairstow at just the right time and constraining Manish Pandey and the lower middle-order. The KKR that day did not lack for experience, but perhaps the average age of 32 is a little long in the tooth for the relentless frequency of the IPL schedule.

Batting second, they lost the next three games, two of them chasing targets above 200 where RCB and CSK had bullied the Knight Riders’ attack. Their only other victory, by no means coincidentally, came against the Punjab Kings, when Morgan registered 47*, his highest score of a tournament where his average to date is a distinctly modest 15.3. The Kings, on that day, kindly removing any scoreboard pressure with a miserable 123 for nine.

Poor form of key players is undoubtedly an issue, beyond Morgan himself. Of the batsmen, only Nitesh Rana makes it into the tournament top 10 based on averages. Two KKR bowlers, both right-arm quicks, Pat Cummins and Prasidh Krishna, make the bowling top 10, based on wickets taken, but until today, when Jasprit Bumrah, Lungi Ngidi and Shardul Thakur suffered more grievously, Cummings had also carried the dubious honour of most runs conceded in a match, 53 against CSK in Mumbai.

Both in their mid-twenties, they are the younger end of that KKR attack.

So misfiring batting with the likes of Shubman Gill under delivering and an ageing and expensive bowling attack are undoubtedly being exposed. There have been high spots of course, notably Andre Russel’s five-wicket haul, but two expensive wickets in five other matches makes that five fer an exception to an otherwise torrid rule with the ball.

Arguably, when times are tough, you need your captain at the top his game, at least with tactics and motivation. The question marks over Morgan in both areas have become a consistent theme in recent matches.

Sunil Gavaskar and Kevin Peterson, admittedly from the safety of the commentary box, were both bemused by Morgan’s tactics in the most recent seven-wicket defeat by Delhi Capitals in Ahmedabad. After setting a modest target of 155, Morgan decided to open the bowling with the inexperienced Shivam Mavi instead of the seasoned Cummins. The young paceman was bludgeoned for six fours in an over by DC opener Prithvi Shaw and gave away 25 runs, which almost put KKR out of the game. Gavaskar and Pietersen were united in the view that the team’s best bowler can’t be introduced in the sixth over, especially when you have a low target to defend.

Earlier, Gautam Gambhir, was vocal in his attack on Morgan after RCB had been allowed to post a sizable 204 for four thanks to Glenn Maxwell and AB de Villiers. Varun Chakravarthy had dismissed both Virat Kohli and Rajat Paditar cheaply in the first two overs, but to Gambhir’s horror was then whipped out of the attack. In his place, Morgan handed the ball to Shakib Al Hasan.

Gambhir fumed: “Virat Kohli wicket was a big wicket. There is no doubt about it. But I have seen such strange captaincy for the first time in my life. No bowler took wickets in his first two overs and did not get to bowl in the next over. You have got to have Varun bowling at that time. If he had taken the wicket of Maxwell, the game could have changed there.”

Gambhir may be a little harsh there. Take early wickets and then hold your strike bowler back to the latter part of the innings is a common tactic, but it does seem to suggest that the normally fearless Morgan missed the opportunity to be, well, fearless.

For now, McCullum has stood by his captain, coming down heavily on his team’s top-order batsmen for not showing enough “intent and aggression” after demanding “loyalty” from him during team selection. Gill, although not directly named, seemed to be the object of McCullum’s ire.

“It’s very, very disappointing. I think as a player, you ask to be given freedom and confidence and loyalty when it comes to selection, to go out there and take the game on and try and be aggressive… and to try and make things happen for your team,” McCullum said after the team slumped to its fifth defeat against the Delhi Capitals.

“That’s the style of play which both myself and Eoin have asked of our players. But unfortunately, we’re not quite getting that. We’re certainly not getting it in the abundance that we need.”

“It’s very difficult if you don’t play shots to score runs, and unfortunately tonight we didn’t play enough shots. It’s become a bit of a theme. I’ve asked time and time again for us to be more aggressive and more expressive and take the game on, and we continue to not do it. So we’re going to have to make some changes.”

The comments suggest, for now at least, that the McCullum/Morgan axis is firm. It is, in the mind of the coach, the fault of the players for their failure to deliver on the aggressive template. But perhaps, with cool, more self-critical reflection, both Morgan and McCullum will see moments where the leadership itself has not made the best of the team’s talent pool.

Defeat against RCB on Monday and – like the counterparts at Sunrisers – the owners may be looking to make a mid-tournament change of captain for a second season in succession.