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IPL: Team Kolkata

Rising of Kolkata Knight

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JUMP WITH JOY: A focused Gautam Gambhir has harnessed Kolkata's varied strengths very effectively

"Kuch jeetne ke liye kuch haarna bhi padta hain. Aur haarkar jeetne waalon ko baazigar kehte hain!"

When Shah Rukh immortalised these lines with a half-smile on screen in the Diwali of 1993, little did he know that he will have to go through it for real, one-anda-half decades down the line.

King Khan bought Team Kolkata for $75 million (Rs 357 crore) in 2008 and he must have expected that it would just be another "came, saw, conquered" story. But it didn't take him too long to understand that T20 cricket, like modern-day cinema, cannot work just because a few ageing stars are on board. It needs a young, youthful anchor, a quality support cast, and the desire to succeed in the middle, not scoring a few brownie points away from it.

Earlier this week, Shah Rukh had expressed his surprise at his team's breakthrough. "I still don't believe that this team has made the final. Please pinch me so that I know I am in the real world, " he had said, moments after his team made it to the title round of the IPL. Given his penchant for histrionics, it may well have been a perfectly-rehearsed line, but with the free show that followed for the Pune crowd with King Khan somersaulting across the ground, one could really feel that the man's happiness was for real. But behind the high-octane drama of the high-profile owner, there is one man who has played a key role in the transformation of Team Kolkata - Delhi boy Gautam Gambhir was bought for a whopping $2. 4 million in the fourth auction and the left-hander has been worth every single penny. "Gauti was an inspired buy. I was with Kolkata in the first few years and I know how they needed a leader like that, " says former Test opener Aakash Chopra, adding, "He has simply been phenomenal, both as a leader and a batsman. " Chopra should know, having played for Kolkata in their first two tumultuous seasons.

Before that, the team had grappled with three captains in the first three editions - Sourav Ganguly, Brendon McCullum, and Ganguly again - and things only went from bad to worse. Ganguly and the first coach John Buchanan had turned into bitter enemies by the second IPL, when the Aussie mooted the seriously-flawed multi-captain theory. But, Dada was not to prove to be on the same page with Dav Whatmore, Buchanan's successor in the third season, either. "If they are bowling like this, god save their careers, " was Ganguly's rant after Kolkata's defeat against Bangalore during the third IPL, and it didn't go down too well either with Ishant Sharma & Co or the team management. Soon, owner Shah Rukh was hell bent on not retaining the ageing Bengal southpaw for the fourth edition.

"It was a huge decision, given that the team is from Kolkata, but the team management was going ahead with a specific plan in mind, " Chopra says. Ousting Ganguly meant that Team Kolkata lost out quite significantly on the support base at their home. It didn't help that none of the other teams seemed to want Ganguly, with him embarrassingly being sidelined during the auction. It was only a belated, post-auction move by Pune Warriors that salvaged some pride for the former skipper from Kolkata.
With their very own Ganguly being ignored, a huge section of the city refused to accept Kolkata as their team. Bengali society, which loves to get divided into camps on every issue, lapped this one up and their IPL universe now had two poles - Shah Rukh and their beloved Dada.

Ganguly is a CPM loyalist and Shah Rukh is the brand ambassador of Mamata Banerjee's West Bengal, so it didn't take long for the Bengalis to find a political undercurrent to this entire drama - which reached its crescendo during the Kolkata-Pune match at the Eden Gardens earlier this month. The crowd was split down the middle and after Kolkata won a tight game, Ganguly took a lap of honour of the Eden with Shah Rukh to portray a picture of bonhomie.

"It's their team after all and I don't think Kolkata will be unhappy if the team goes on to win the tournament... They are passionate about certain players, but they understand their sport as well. I am sure they understand why this team needed leaders like Gautam Gambhir, " says Sambaran Banerjee, Bengal's last Ranji Trophy winning captain says. A regular panelist on live IPL shows on local Kolkata TV channels, Banerjee has vouched for the fact that the "friction has certainly come down since May 5 (the day of the Kolkata-Pune match)". "The mood is changing, and the people understand that every selection made by the management has been well thought out. If that wasn't the case, they wouldn't have gone for Sunil Narine, who was pretty much an unknown quantity before the IPL, " Banerjee points out.

Narine, of course, has been Kolkata's best buy after Gambhir over the last five years. Paying a fortune for a spinner is not considered a wise move in the IPL, but the skipper, quite obviously, had seen something special in him and the team went all out for the West Indian in the auctions. Named after Sunil Gavaskar, the spinner was partying with friends when the auctions were going on and had no idea that he had been bought for $700, 000 till Dwayne Bravo informed him.

"Narine has been exceptional for us. He has a cool head and has delivered at the crunch, " skipper Gambhir had said after Kolkata made the final. Narine's knuckle ball has left one and all bamboozled and the joke going around on social networking sites is that Kolkata have an unfair advantage because teams playing against them only have 16 overs to play!

Gambhir, though, insists that it's not just about Narine. He talks of a "core group" which includes players like South African Jacques Kallis, Bangladeshi Shakib Al Hasan, New Zealand's Brendon McCullum and even an underperforming Yusuf Pathan. The last-named, who has come in for a lot of criticism for his poor form, came good just when it mattered in the vital play-off match against Delhi in Pune. "A team will only do well if the core group succeeds. Thankfully, this team has that and I am confident that they will take us all the way through, " the skipper had said. Gambhir is surely talking from experience. It was a similar core group that helped India win the World Cup in 2011, but has disintegrated over the past one year. A casualty of such fragmentation has been Gambhir himself, who was relieved of his vice-captaincy duties following a poor run of form in England and the West Indies.

"I don't know whether he wants to prove that it was wrong to remove him from the Indian vice-captaincy. All I know is Gauti wants to show to the world that he is a fantastic captain and every step he has taken in this IPL have been in the right direction, " says Chopra summing up his former Delhi teammate's mindset, going into the grand finale on Sunday.

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