Starc likely to be rested as Knights look to extend dominance over Punjab

Eden Gardens in Kolkata

A hot and humid Kolkata is set to host Punjab Kings as Kolkata Knight Riders look to continue their rich run of form against the visitors, who are staring at their fifth consecutive defeat in the Indian Premier League (IPL) 2024. KKR have had sheer dominance over Punjab with 21 wins in 32 matches played between the two sides.

There have been lots of smiles in the KKR camp since the return of their former captain Gautam Gambhir as team mentor. Gambhir’s magic formula looks to be working with the team, sitting pretty on second with five wins in seven.

“Everyone has a lot of clarity. It’s only because of him (Gambhir), the team is performing so well. He is backing everyone,” KKR all-rounder Ramandeep Singh said at the pre-match press conference.

The devastating opening duo of Sunil Narine (286 runs) and Phil Salt (249 runs) will look to extract the most out of the Eden Gardens belter – pitches at this venue have been heavily lopsided in favour of the batters this season. Both had a good time at the nets on Thursday as they practised range hitting. For Punjab, Narine the batter won’t be the sole issue, as Narine the bowler has troubled them the most in the past. The spinner’s 33 scalps against PBKS is the most for him against a single opponent in the IPL.

The likes of Andre Russell, Rinku Singh and Ramandeep Singh, too, looked in terrific touch with the bat at the nets. However, KKR skipper Shreyas Iyer didn’t bat at the nets on the eve of the match and was rather seen doing fitness drills for 15 minutes or so. Sources in the camp suggest that while there is nothing to worry about, Shreyas is being treated cautiously due to his poor history of back injuries. Meanwhile, Nitish Rana remains unavailable, with the KKR vice-captain still recovering from a finger injury.

The biggest talking point from the KKR camp has been the indifferent form of Mitchell Starc, who was signed for a record Rs 24.75 crore by the Kolkata outfit. In 25 overs in the IPL 2024 so far, Starc has conceded 278 runs at an economy rate of 11.48,while picking up just six wickets. He didn’t bowl a single delivery in the run-up to the match against Punjab Kings and is likely to be rested for Sri Lankan pacer Dushmantha Chameera on Friday. If KKR go with an Indian pacer in place of Starc then they are likely to go with West Indies all-rounder Sherfane Rutherford.

“Yes, Starc is available. It’s (him not bowling) got to do with his workload management,” Ramandeep said. “He is a legend. Cricket is a game of time. We can’t judge him from a few matches.

Whereas for Punjab Kings, the story remains the same, with just two wins in eight games despite roping in Sanjay Bangar as head of cricket development before the start of the tournament.

To pile more misery on PBKS’ campaign, skipper Shikhar Dhawan will continue to be absent for the team as he recovers from a shoulder injury. Although he was seen having a light batting session at Eden on the eve of the match, Punjab’s spin bowling coach Sunil Joshi has confirmed that the southpaw will miss the KKR game.

PBKS will look for inspiration from other batters as well as their regular big contributors this season in Shashank Singh and Ashutosh Sharma. While Punjab fought hard in their previous games, they have been a tad unfortunate to not get over the line, losing six of their games in the last over.

The visitors would look for big runs from Sam Curran, Prabhsimran Singh, Liam Livingstone and Jitesh Sharma with the quartet yet to fire on all cylinders with consistency in this year’s IPL. Jitesh, in particular, has been a big let-down with the bat with just 128 runs at a strike rate of 125.49. His poor run of form with the bat could cost him a place in India’s T20 World Cup squad as well.

“Jitesh is a quality batter and we all know that the time has come for him to fire tomorrow. And yes, of course, there are multiple players in the whole IPL,” Joshi told reporters on the eve of the match. “They are all eager to be in the T20 World Cup squad. But at times, most of the players are in that phase that making it to the Indian team will always keep haunting. So, it’s about focusing on the basics, right things,” he added.

Asked what his message would be to Jitesh, Joshi said: “Finally, you got to perform. You got to look at one ball at a time, you can’t look beyond. You are playing in the IPL, you got to focus on match by match, ball by ball and leave the rest to the selectors.”

PBKS are the only team to not concede 200 or more in an innings so far in IPL 2024 but they will be up against the Knights who have smashed 200-plus totals in all the four matches at Eden.

While this one promises to be another high-scoring match, Bollywood fans might keep a close eye on the owners – Shah Rukh Khan and Preity Zinta – with both of them set to grace the stands of the iconic stadium. That’s the reason fans have been labelling it as the ‘Veer-Zara Derby’ on social media. The movie ended with SRK and Zinta’s characters walking off hand in hand, but in cricket, only one will take the two points.