The build-up has been somewhat low-key, what with several players, both international and domestic, involved in playing representative cricket for their countries, their states or franchises and the tournament seemingly materialising suddenly. But while the hype and the hoopla have been somewhat muted, there is no doubt that all teams are in a state of complete preparedness, going into edition six of the Indian Premier League.
Kolkata Knight Riders, the defending champions, have the honour of kicking off this season’s tournament with a home clash, at the Eden Gardens, against Delhi Daredevils on Wednesday (April 3) night. It’s a rematch of the first game for both teams in season five, which the Daredevils won by eight wickets in a match reduced to 12 overs a side. Much water has flowed under the Hooghly Bridge since then, and the slate has been wiped clean.
For all their dominance of the league phase, the Daredevils failed to make it count towards the knockout stages of the competition, while the Knight Riders kept unearthing one hero after another. Manvinder Bisla emerged as the unlikeliest of them all with an innings of supreme brilliance in the final against Chennai Super Kings.
History, and the past, will be the last thing, however, on the minds of the Knight Riders and Daredevils as they gear up for the first act of a 76-game competition. Both sides are grappling with injuries to key players, and while both are trying to make a brave fist of it, it is quite obvious that the Daredevils have been more severely hit than the Knight Riders, especially from a batting perspective.
Already without Kevin Pietersen, Jesse Ryder and Ross Taylor, the Daredevils also woke up to the prospect on Tuesday of being without Virender Sehwag, at least for the opening game. An old injury that has haunted Sehwag for a while now has resurfaced, and back spasms prevented him from flying out from New Delhi until late on Tuesday. If he does indeed arrive in Kolkata, the think-tank must weigh up the temptation of fielding him, however short of runs he might be, against the potential for more damage and a greater spell of absence as the tournament moves forward.
As things stand now, the Daredevils are preparing themselves for a Sehwag-less opening clash, thereby further weakening an already embattled batting line-up that will also most likely be without Y Venugopala Rao, the experienced former India batsman who is carrying a hamstring niggle.
That will allow the likes of Unmukt Chand, in wonderful T20 form of late, Kedar Jadhav and Manprit Juneja to step out of the shadows. Chand and Jadhav have shown sporadically in the past that they can hold their own on the most intimidating of stages. Juneja is a less tested commodity, and if he does get a go, it will be a baptism as much by singeing fire as teasing spin, primarily in the shape of Sunil Narine.
For all his travails in Test cricket, Narine is still more than a handful in the limited-overs game with his freakish control and a multitude of variations. With James Pattinson given more time to recover from the rigours of the India tour by Cricket Australia, Shakib Al Hasan unavailable through injury and Brett Lee having slipped into the role of a bowling coach as well, Narine will have to lead the attack if the Knight Riders intend to emulate their heroics of the previous season.
They will also be without Brendon McCullum, the New Zealand captain who is recovering from a hamstring injury of his own, but there is plenty of class, depth and quality in their ranks. Jacques Kallis aside, they have Eoin Morgan, a bit of an IPL disappointment who should relish the opportunity of a hit, most probably at or around the top of the order. In the middle order, Ryan ten Doeschate offers a solid allround option.
It’s how well the Indian component shapes up that invariably determines how far a team will go in the competition, and the Knight Riders have made their choices wisely. They have the personnel for all conditions and, in Gautam Gambhir, a driven, focussed and demanding skipper. Playing at home, the Knight Riders will believe they have the resources to put it past the Daredevils.
Kolkata Knight Riders: Gautam Gambhir (capt), Manvinder Bisla (wk), Jacques Kallis, Manoj Tiwary, Yusuf Pathan, Eoin Morgan, Rajat Bhatia, Lakshmipathi Balaji, Brett Lee, Iqbal Abdulla, Sunil Narine, Ryan ten Doeschate, Debabrata Das, Laxmi Ratan Shukla, Shami Ahmed, Pradeep Sangwan, Sarabjit Singh Ladda, Brad Haddin, Ryan McLaren, Sachithra Senanayake.
Delhi Daredevils: Mahela Jayawardene (capt), David Warner, Virender Sehwag, Unmukt Chand, Kedar Jadhav, Andre Russell, Naman Ojha (wk), Irfan Pathan, Johan Botha, Shahbaz Nadeem, Umesh Yadav, Ashish Nehra, Jeevan Mendis, Ajit Agarkar, CM Gautam (wk), Manprit Juneja, Pawan Negi Royston Dias, Siddharth Kaul, Sujit Nayak, Y Venugopala Rao, Yogesh Nagar.