KPL - Shorn of stars but not of value

A level-playing field makes the Karnataka Premier League, which begins on Friday, an open tournament.

Prominent players like Karun Nair (left) and R. Samarth will likely be absent from the tournament.   -  K. Bhagya Prakash

Faced with the prospect of losing its star names for the most part, the sixth edition of the Karnataka Premier League (KPL) will get off to a wary yet hopeful start at the M. Chinnaswamy Stadium here on Friday.

It was already understood that India's ODI schedule would keep K. L. Rahul and Manish Pandey away for the bulk of the tournament. On Wednesday came the news that Karun Nair, K. Gowtham and R. Samarth may also likely be away after being named in the Duleep Trophy squads. The KSCA is hopeful that the trio will return to the KPL during breaks in their schedule, but their unavailability for the whole programme is a bit of a dampener.

Level-playing field

However, the teams have much to look forward to over the next three weeks in Bengaluru, Mysuru and Hubballi. This is a restructured KPL with seven freshly-assembled squads, including a new franchise from the capital city. “The fresh auction has levelled the playing field,” said Chethan Williams, who coaches the Bengaluru Blasters side alongside J. Arunkumar. “Thankfully there wasn't any retention which would have worked against us to some extent. Only a few of the teams have managed to maintain the core group. Most of them are shuffled.”

Hubli Tigers and Belagavi Panthers will meet in the opening fixture – one of only two games in Bengaluru. Hubli, which finished runner-up last year, will be led by R. Vinay Kumar this time. With the combined talents of Mayank Agarwal, the leading run-scorer last time, all-rounder Praveen Dubey, an in-form Abhishek Reddy, and David Mathias, the team will hope for silverware this year.

Belagavi, to be led by the veteran S. Arvind, would ordinarily have been formidable with Manish Pandey and K. Gowtham on its roster, but in the current circumstances will hope the likes of Stuart Binny, Kaunain Abbas and Stalin Hoover can propel the side far.

‘No team is weak’

The defending champion, Ballari Tuskers, will consider itself among the favourites, having managed to retain five of the 11 that featured in last year's final, not least the captain Amit Verma, who was declared player of the series. C.M. Gautam, Kunal Kapoor, and K.B. Pawan fortify the batting, while K.L. Rahul's involvement – he is expected to feature in a couple of games – will be a bonus. “We don't judge a team by stars or big names,” said Verma. “No team is weak. We don't underestimate anyone.”

Mysuru Warriors, which won the KPL under the stewardship of 'RX' Murali in 2014, will hope the coach can deliver success again. Captain Karun Nair will be sorely missed but Shreyas Gopal and Mysuru's own J. Suchith – also team-mates at Mumbai Indians – will bring their experience with them.

The KPL sees itself as a platform for young cricketers to capture the attention of Indian Premier League (IPL) sides and there will be the same expectation again, that one or two names emerge. “You play to do well; you don't play to impress scouts or anything like that,” said Suchith, whose own KPL displays did not go unnoticed. “You just want to enjoy your cricket.”