By Debayan Mukherjee
Kolkata, April 24 (IANS): Under the pump for the first time as Kolkata Knight Riders' (KKR) skipper, Dinesh Karthik's leadership skills and own form will be keenly observed when his team takes on Rajasthan Royals in a must-win Indian Premier League (IPL) encounter for both outfits, here at the Eden Gardens on Thursday.
Karthik has a tally of 117 runs after 10 matches with only one 50. The World Cup call up has also failed to inspire the stumper-batsman who chose to go on a break to Mumbai after KKR's fifth successive defeat at the hands of Sunrisers Hyderabad on the road.
There have been talks about Karthik being removed as skipper even after head coach Jacques Kallis has put his weight behind the 33-year-old. The decision to send their best power hitter Andre Russell as low as No. 7 in the last few matches have only escalated the matter.
Besdies Karthik, vice-captain Robin Uthappa has been struggling with his own issues. While he has managed to score more runs than Karthik, 220 to be exact in nine matches but his strike rate of 119.56 has been a real cause of concern for the two-time champions.
Uthappa wasted a lot of deliveries, which proved to be costly in their last home game against RCB. KKR fell 10 short of the 214-run target. He was dropped in their last game and so was Kuldeep Yadav who has failed to shine this season going for lot of runs and failing to deceive the batsmen.
Five cricketers -- Karthik, Uthappa, wicket-keeper Nikhil Naik and pacers Shrikant Munde and Prithvi Raj Yarra -- went to Mumbai for a break, a move Kallis said was done to take the players away from the game a bit and re-energise.
In their remaining four games, KKR have to win all of them to qualify for the play-offs.
Coming to the visitors, Royals, placed seventh in the points and in need to win their remaining four matches in order to have any chance of qualifying for the playoffs, will be boosted by Ajinkya Rahane's form. The India test specialist, removed from captaincy as Steve Smith took over, scored a magnificent hundred in their last game against Delhi Capitals.
Royals lost the game but Rahane's show was encouraging to say the least. Royals will be without Jos Buttler once again but for the last time will get the services of Ben Stokes and Jofra Archer, the latter being their key bowler along with spinneer Shreyas Gopal.
Archer and Stokes will join the England squad for World Cup preparation with the deadline being April 26. Archer is not part of the 15-member contingent but has made it to the England limited-overs' squad for the Pakistan ODI series.
KKR, though, will draw confidence from their first leg meeting with Royals, where the two-time champions recorded a facile eight-wicket victory.
Kolkata Knight Riders: Dinesh Karthik (Captain), Sunil Narine, Andre Russell, Carlos Brathwaite, Joe Denly, Lockie Ferguson, Chris Lynn, Robin Uthappa (wicket-keeper), Harry Gurnley, Kuldeep Yadav, Piyush Chawla, Nitish Rana, Sandeep Warrier, K.C. Cariappa, Shubman Gill, Rinku Singh, Shrikant Mundhe, Nikhil Naik, Anrich Nortje, Prithvi Raj, Prasidh Krishna.
Rajasthan Royals: Ajinkya Rahane, Krishnappa Gowtham, Sanju Samson (wicket-keeper), Shreyas Gopal, Aryaman Birla, S. Midhun, Prashant Chopra, Stuart Binny, Rahul Tripathi, Ben Stokes, Steve Smith (Captain), Jos Buttler, Jofra Archer, Ish Sodhi, Dhawal Kulkarni, Mahipal Lomror, Jaydev Unadkat, Varun Aaron, Oshane Thomas, Shashank Singh, Liam Livinstone, Shubham Rajane, Manan Vohra, Ashton Turner, Riyan Parag