Mohali: Officially, the start of the 2013-14 Indian domestic season is still ten days away. The Challenger Series for the NKP Salve Trophy will kick off a new season of hope, desire and ambition, but competitive cricket has already got going in earnest in India, what with New Zealand A having just wrapped up a tour of three-day, four-day and one-day matches, and West Indies A currently engaged in a limited-overs battle with India A, to be followed by three four-day games.
Amidst all this comes the Champions League Twenty20 tournament, bringing together the best Twenty20 franchises from across the world - with the notable exception of England, who have opted to stay away this year - in a short, snappy competition that is certain to throw up quality cricket, even if it doesn't necessarily attract the masses in large numbers.
The ten-team main draw won't begin until September 21, but the tournament will kick off at the PCA Stadium in Mohali on Tuesday (September 17) with a series of qualifying matches involving four teams - the domestic T20 champions of New Zealand (Otago Volts), Pakistan (Faisalabad Wolves) and Sri Lanka (Kandurata Maroons) squaring off against Sunrisers Hyderabad, the fourth-placed team in season six of the Indian Premier League.
The top two from the qualifying phase will join eight other teams - the top three from the IPL, two each from Australia and South Africa, and the winners of the Caribbean domestic T20 tournament, not the Caribbean Premier League - for the tournament proper. With a host of top-notch internationals in every team, quality fare is guaranteed; how the fans respond to the plethora of stars that will ply their wares is another matter altogether.
For various reasons, the Champions League hasn't managed to attract even a quarter of the attention or the interest the IPL does. To start with, there is no distinct Indian flavour alone to the tournament, even if a minimum of three teams will be seen in action. Additionally, few have been excited by the prospect of watching, say, Brisbane Heat take on Highveld Lions. All matches involving teams from the IPL, and especially those that pit one IPL team against another, have been brilliantly received, as is to be expected, but several of the other games have barely garnered notice, a trend the organisers and the teams will be desperate to reverse this time around.
The Champions League returns to India after having played itself out in South Africa last year, when Sydney Sixers towered above the rest of the field to crown themselves champions. The Sixers won't be defending the title - they failed to finish in the first two in the Big Bash League as Brisbane Heat and Perth Scorchers earned the bragging rights - and while it will be tempting to install one of the Indian franchises as among the favourites especially because of their familiarity with the conditions, things aren't quite as straightforward as that.
IPL franchises generally train together for a week or so before the start of the IPL, spend some eight weeks or so on the road during competition, and only link up a couple of days before the start of the tournament. Mumbai Indians, the defending IPL champions, Chennai Super Kings and Rajasthan Royals have all had to practice without most of their international stars in the lead-up to the event. Consequently, the pressure on them to immediately start to combine as a unit all over again will be huge. How quickly they all fall in sync will be crucial to their success, particularly given that a majority of the players in the other teams will have played alongside each other for large parts of their respective domestic seasons.
That said, just a cursory glance through the sides that are guaranteed main draw spots reveals the strength in depth of Mumbai and Chennai, both former Champions League winners. They will again be the ones to watch out for, along with the South African and the Australian challengers, but Trinidad & Tobago can most definitely not be ruled out from having a say. Despite missing Kieron Pollard, Dwayne Bravo and Kevon Cooper, playing for Mumbai, Chennai and Rajasthan respectively, they have plenty of strength in depth. Sunil Narine and Samuel Badree, their two accomplished spinners, should relish bowling in India, though pitches at this early stage of the season won't exactly assist their craft.
Even in isolation, Twenty20 cricket makes winner-prediction a most hazardous proposition. With so many variables at play in a tournament such as the Champions League, it's impossible to state with conviction how the tournament will pan out. The only guarantee is that entertainment will not be at a premium, but will there be enough bums on the seats across Mohali, Jaipur, Ahmedabad, Ranchi and Delhi to partake of that entertainment?
Group A: Mumbai Indians, Highveld Lions, Perth Scorchers, Rajasthan Royals, Qualifier 1
Group B: Chennai Super Kings, Titans, Brisbane Heat, Trinidad & Tobago, Qualifier 2
Teams in qualifying competition: Otago Volts, Sunrisers Hyderabad, Kandurata Maroons, Faisalabad Wolves.