KKR's IPL 2024 secret? Collecting 'big-match' personalities like Pokemon

KKR have found a mentality monster at every stage in IPL 2024.
KKR have found a mentality monster at every stage in IPL 2024. (Image Credit: iplt20.com)

If you go through Gautam Gambhir's interviews as a pundit commentating on India's games from before 2024 -- and ignore the part where he was asked blatantly specific questions on MS Dhoni -- you'll find one common thread.

"The problem is with the mental toughness of the side," he told ESPNcricinfo after India's defeat to New Zealand in the 2021 T20 World Cup. "Suddenly when you know you have got to win the game and can't make mistakes, in bilateral it's different because you can make mistakes there. But in these kinds of games, I don't think India has got that mental strength."

There are similar examples from 2020 and 2023. And here's even Dhoni pin-pointedly calling Gambhir a "big-match player."

Rumors are rife about how he could be the next head coach of the Indian men's team. This "big-match" mentality and "mental strength" are exactly what you expect him to bring to the table. And that's exactly in the blood of KKR of 2024.

KKR have put the money where the mentality is

When Mitchell Starc took the new ball in his hand on Tuesday, against the SunRisers Hyderabad (SRH) -- shoulders more relaxed than usual, forehead with fewer lines of stress than usual -- you knew what was coming. The inevitability was palpable.

Three wickets in the first three overs of the powerplay (which could have been four). Getting SRH's highest run-scorer Travis Head with a majestic in-swinger that jagged away after pitching, Nitish Reddy with a bouncer, and Shahbaz Ahmed with a length ball -- he hadn't bowled this well all season but it didn't feel like a surprise.

Far from it. In the 2023 ODI World Cup, Starc had 10 wickets in eight games at an average of 43.90 and an economy rate of 6.55. In the semi-final against South Africa and the final against India, he picked up three wickets each with his average dropping to 14.83 and the cost of each over going as low as 4.45.

In white-ball cricket, even when he's been in good form, Australia's arch-rivals England and New Zealand have faced an extra brunt of his skills.

You can speak about the pitch in the red ball format. However, it wasn't a coincidence that he hardly played and took two wickets in two Tests versus India in losing causes in the 2022-23 series, before taking four big ones in the World Test Championship final against the same opponent, just weeks later.

Sportskeeda spoke to Urvi Shah, a Mumbai-based counseling and sports psychologist, to understand why is this the case with Starc, and other such cricketers, who often seem to reserve their best for the most difficult games.

According to her, it's a combination of many factors, including an individual's personality and the kind of mental training they invest in like visualization, mental simulation, and preparing for various scenarios with a trained sports psychologist.

"As individuals, all of us work differently," she said. "Some people perceive stress as a threat and some people see it as a challenge. For some people, highly competitive situations help them build themselves more, it's a challenge where they can learn, improve and change. And for some people, highly competitive situations make them feel stressed, they see it as a threat. There are a lot of other factors, like a fear of failure, and other individual differences like past experiences, or learning from someone else's experiences."
"[Players like Starc] tend to push themselves and really dig into those moments. For some, it's a natural thing (personality) and for some, it's a learned approach. That's when we say that individual differences play quite a crucial role even in team sports. The job of the coach and leader/captain is to understand these differences and bring out the best for the team...hence we see some players from the team who seem to be struggling in certain settings and some who really give their best," she added.

This is what KKR paid a franchise-record ₹24.75 crore for. For the four wickets, Starc took against MI at the Wankhede, historically KKR's worst nightmare of a ground, and the three here in Ahmedabad. You know Gambhir saw that too from the way he spoke about his torrid start to the season.

"We all know how big a threat Mitchell Starc is," he said earlier. "Four games doesn't make him a bad bowler. And four good games doesn't make him a brilliant bowler either. So I know what impact he can create and what impact he will create in the competition.”

Starc's not the only one either. Skipper Shreyas Iyer also earns a whopping ₹12.5 crore from KKR. When he was signed, there were expected questions on his T20 ability. But his performances in the biggest games had gone unnoticed: (93* off 40 vs KKR in 2018 in his first match as DC captain; 65* off 50 in the IPL 2020 final against the Mumbai Indians, incidentally his last match as DC captain).

After struggling for strike rate all of IPL 2024, he smashed 58 in just 24 balls against SRH. The knock was eerily reminiscent of the century he scored against New Zealand in the 2023 World Cup semi-final at the Wankhede Stadium.

Shreyas was partnered by Venkatesh Iyer who scored 51 (28). It wasn't long ago that Venkatesh's retention for ₹8 crore for IPL 2022 over Shubman Gill distressed a lot of KKR fans. But this was his third consecutive half-century in IPL playoffs.

The other high-salaried stars, Andre Russell, Sunil Narine, and Varun Chakaravarthy, who were retained alongside Venkatesh, have always been consistent in playoffs too like they were against SRH.

Gambhir was similar, so his knocks in the 2011 and 2007 World Cups defined him as a cricketer. The entire KKR staff of Chandrakant Pandit, Bharat Arun, Abhishek Nayar, and even the fielding coach Ryan ten Doeschate (remember his 70* off 49 in the IPL 2011 Eliminator at the Wankhede?) are similar personalities.

But, as Urvi said, these things can be taught.

"If someone has gone through training with a sports psychologist, they are more prone to break those patterns and change their mindset of seeing it as a threat," she said. "It is also dependent on the athlete's willingness to invest that time and effort that it requires to build and maintain that mindset. It's not a one day, one month job, it's a regular consistent practice that helps you build and achieve that level of mental toughness."

Some of these players and staff were there before Gambhir came along. In IPL 2023, too, despite having a depleted squad, they won games that not many expected them to win and looked the best among the teams who didn't qualify.

This season, they have a core group of these mentality monsters who get better in adversity and a younger generation -- Harshit Rana, Vaibhav Arora, Angkrish Raghuvanshi, Ramandeep Singh, and Rahmanullah Gurbaz -- which is quickly acquiring the same traits from that dressing room.

Those youngsters performed better than most seniors to help KKR reach the playoffs. Ramandeep and Angkrish have stood tall (literally!) in batting collapses, while Harshit and Vaibhav have led the defense of relatively small targets. Now, the seniors are showing them the way when there's no scope for mistakes.

It looks like a vintage Gautam Gambhir team gift-wrapped in the modern Shreyas Iyer era. Come the final on Sunday at Chepauk, you won't know which player, young or seasoned, will put his hand up but you know one of them certainly will.

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Edited by Ankush Das
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