Mohali: The fifth edition of the Champions League Twenty20 is still a few days away - the tournament proper begins only on September 21 - but for the four teams vying for the two remaining slots in the main draw, the six-match qualifying phase beginning on Tuesday (September 17) at the PCA Stadium in Mohali is every bit as crucial as the matches in the main tournament.
Not only does making it past the qualifiers mean enhanced financial riches, it also serves to improve the profile of the franchise concerned, both at home and on the global stage.
As such, there is plenty at stake for Otago Volts, the New Zealand domestic Twenty20 champions, their Pakistani counterparts Faisalabad Wolves and Sri Lanka's Kandurata Maroons, as well as Sunrisers Hyderabad, who finished fourth on their IPL debut last season.
Each of the four sides will have to play three matches over four days. Consequently, there is little scope for slip-ups and even lesser time to brood and fret; teams that hit the ground running will always find themselves in a better space, which is precisely why in a format of this nature, it is imperative to get off to a winning start.
Eight teams have earned automatic berths - the top three finishers in the IPL (Mumbai Indians, Chennai Super Kings and Rajasthan Royals), the first two in the Australian Big Bash League (Brisbane Heat and Perth Scorchers), the top two in the South African domestic tournament (Highveld Lions and Titans) and Trinidad & Tobago, the Caribbean domestic T20 champions. The top two from the qualifiers will earn the right to challenge the big boys following the round robin, all-play-all league that should throw up exciting action.
Kandurata wear a formidable look with a host of current internationals. The biggest draw is Kumar Sangakkara, who was almost hounded into choosing the Sri Lankan franchise ahead of Hyderabad, whom he led sporadically during IPL VI. Captained by Lahiru Thirimanne, the stylish left-hand batsman, Kandurata boast such proven performers as Nuwan Kulasekara, Rangana Herath, Ajantha Mendis, Suraj Randiv, Thilina Kandamby, Dhammika Prasad and Chamara Silva, and will quietly fancy their chances of making a strong pitch for the next round.
First up for Kandurata on Tuesday are Hyderabad, who have opted for an Indian captain in Shikhar Dhawan and who have a brilliant all-round talent in Thisara Perera, himself a Sri Lankan. Hyderabad's batting was their Achilles' heel during the IPL, especially in the early stages when Dhawan was missing with a fractured finger, but what they lacked in batting firepower, they more than made up with incisive bowling with Dale Steyn at the forefront. Steyn, Ishant Sharma, Darren Sammy, Perera and the two legspinners Amit Mishra and Karan Sharma consistently proved a handful for all comers. They can do with a little more help from the batting group, fortified by the inclusion of JP Duminy, who missed the IPL through injury. If Dhawan continues his exceptional recent run and Duminy brings his explosive batting to the party, Hyderabad's bowlers will breathe a little easy in the knowledge that they don't have to do all the running.
Otago are a strong all-round side under Brendon McCullum, inarguably one of the most destructive batsmen in T20 cricket. Experienced and unconventional, McCullum can single-handedly alter the course of a game, but there is more to Otago than just their captain. Aaron Redmond and Hamish Rutherford are equally adept in the shortest version, while there is quality in the bowling department in the shape of Ian Butler, Nathan McCullum and Neil Wagner. Otago would be desperately hoping that Ravi Bopara, the England allrounder, does them a favour and turns up for Essex in the English county championship, because that will then mean Ryan ten Doeschate, the Dutch allrounder, will be available to play for Otago from the second qualification fixture on.
Faisalabad Wolves have arrived in a blaze of controversy, none of which is of their own making. Initially denied Indian visas on grounds of security, then hastily moved from Chandigarh to Mohali because they didn't have a Chandigarh-specific visa, they haven't allowed these developments to weaken their spirits. A scheduled practice match at the Sector 16 Stadium in Chandigarh on Monday cancelled for obvious reasons, they had to make do with a warm-up stint at the PCA Stadium instead. They will await the arrival of Misbah-ul-Haq, their captain, Saeed Ajmal, the star offspinner, and Ehsan Adil from Harare via Dubai and New Delhi with bated breath, especially with Misbah bringing calmness and Ajmal his unfathomable bag of tricks, both crucial elements in the frenetic, thrill-a-second adventure that the Twenty20 game is.
Tuesday's matches: Otago Volts v Faisalabad Wolves (4.00 pm); Sunrisers Hyderabad v Kandurata Maroons (8.00 pm)