Pick the winner

The Indian Premier League is back where it belongs after being forced to move to South Africa last year. Raakesh Natraj analyses the chances of the teams in the fray.

CHENNAI SUPER KINGS (CSK)

While the manic energy of the IPL over two seasons has swung the fortunes of some teams high and low, the Chennai outfit, almost anachronistically, has managed to retain its shape and its returns. A batting line-up that boasts Matthew Hayden, M. S. Dhoni, Suresh Raina and Mike Hussey is rarely going to be faulted on counts of consistency or performance, and it was always going to be the lack of teeth in the bowling department that was going to set a ceiling on its performa nce — CSK lost the final in 2008 (against Rajasthan Royals) and the semifinals in 2009 (against Royal Challengers Bangalore), defending totals.

This season, the $100,000 spent on the 33-year-old washed-up Justin Kemp seems to be an investment headed for a similar end as Andrew Flintoff’s. The emergence of Manpreet Gony and Shadab Jakati who punched above their weights in the respective editions meant that the non-performance of a Makhaya Ntini or a Jacob Oram was not too keenly felt. There is perhaps a lesson in there somewhere. M. Vijay, Arun Karthik, Abhinav Mukund, S. Badrinath and G. Chandrasekhar, R. Ashwin and L. Balaji to some extent all enjoyed a good season with Tamil Nadu. If one or more of them come good, CSK might just get third time lucky.

The other reason to go local is the injury situation, with Oram and Muralitharan doubtful starters, while Flintoff has announced that he would skip this edition. Thilan Thushara, the left-arm pacer from Sri Lanka, could be the bargain buy for $50,000, considering he would probably be pressed into service straightaway.

Watch for: Though in the current Indian set-up as a Test batsman, M. Vijay can be a destructive bat once he settles. On the back of a strong season with Tamil Nadu, the opener might just prove that he is no one-trick pony.

DECCAN CHARGERS (DC)

Last season, a few results went its way when it looked like DC might miss out on a semifinal berth; Rohit Sharma, surprisingly, turned his arm over to good effect (11 wickets in 16 matches) and Gilchrist unleashed an innings of savage fury that took it past the more fancied Delhi Daredevils when it did get to the semis — occurrences that seem awfully one-off-ish. Now, yet another year has gone by since Gilchrist retired from international cricket, the tracks back home will probably rob R. P. Singh (Purple cap, 23 wickets) of some of his potency and the team will be stripped of the services of its home-ground and fan base. The team-sheet is crammed with cricketers of high quality — Herschelle Gibbs, Andrew Symonds, Kemar Roach, Dwayne Smith, Chaminda Vaas, Ryan Harris and Mitchell Marsh; but the trouble would be in attempting to pick three (Gilchrist being a virtual certainty) of the above. With the exception of Rohit Sharma, Pragyan Ohja and R. P. Singh, the management will have to figure a way of assembling a team around the four foreign players without them looking like props.

Though blessed with enough firepower to tide over a few of the ills, DC has about it the look of a team that will always be fighting for consistency.

Watch for: Mitchell Marsh, the captain of the World Cup-winning Australian under-19 side, comes highly recommended by coach Darren Lehmann. A 29-ball 60 for Western Australia at the WACA announced the 18-year old’s arrival on the big stage.

DELHI DAREDEVILS (DD)

The mix and match of players on DD’s rolls make for a wholesome team, without one department unduly dented in the bolstering of another. And, the rewards have been plenty. The team has made it to the semifinal stage in both editions and the run has pushed players (like Ashish Nehra and Dirk Nannes) to the fringes of national selection.

Though abounding in left-arm pacemen, the bowling does not suffer for lack of variety. Amit Mishra and Daniel Vettori are a welcome relief from kinsmen of theirs who prefer spearing the ball in. The presence of genuine all-rounders in Moises Henriques, Farveez Maharoof and Andrew McDonald gives the side options and allows for a lot of flexibility. Gautam Gambhir, Virender Sehwag, A. B. de Villiers, Tillekeratne Dilshan and Dinesh Karthik are not players inhibited by methods ill-adjusted to the needs of T20 cricket.

The Feroze Shah Kotla pitch has been given the green signal to host matches for the edition, but if it plays by its reputation of being a slow-turner, it will be the DD batsmen who stand to lose the most.

Along with CSK, DD will be one of the favourites to make it to the knock-out stages.

Watch for: The left-armer’s angle is always going to be difficult to get away, and coupled with Wayne Parnell’s swing, is ideally suited to open the bowling. As he demonstrated in the ODI series against India, the bloke can hit the ball as well.

KINGS XI PUNJAB (KXIP)

Kings XI Punjab, much like its icon-player Yuvraj Singh, has underwhelmed over two seasons. In what turned out to be an injury-blighted second campaign, KXIP crashed out after it could not overhaul a modest CSK total in its last league game. The transfer market opened and closed with hardly any spending, as Mohammad Kaif comes in while Luke Pomersbach and Nuwan Kulasekara were bought out.

The transactions do nothing to address its frailties, and in fact could leave it in a much worse state than before. That almost all of its overseas players — Kumar Sangakkara, Mahela Jayawardane, James Hopes, Shaun Marsh, Ravi Bopara, Adrian Barath and Brett Lee — have to be picked if the starting XI is to be regarded with any degree of earnestness, says much about the almost disorderly way in which the rest of the team has been assembled. The lack of genuine all-rounders (except for Irfan Pathan and James Hopes) is another fault line that leaves the team unbalanced.

Watch for: Coming as he does up the order, any kind of start that Adrian Barath can provide, will ease the pressure on a batting order that, two seasons on, is not settled.

KOLKATA KNIGHT RIDERS (KKR)

Mired in controversy for the whole of the season, KKR finished a disinterested campaign somewhere near the bottom of the table. A team built (in the first season) around Sourav Ganguly, Chris Gayle, Ricky Ponting and Shoaib Akthar is always going to be about flair and style.

If one is to be indulgent one can make an allowance for the combustibility quotient that the above cricketers bring in, but even with that, KKR’s disintegration in the second edition was spectacular.

Bizarre team selection (Ajanta Mendis and Mashrafe Mortaza were not picked for long stretches until it was too late), talk of open rifts and the blogs of a purported mole from inside the KKR camp made for disastrous distractions.

However, a change in captaincy (Sourav Ganguly for Brendon McCullum) and of coach (Dave Whatmore in for John Buchanan) attempts to restore some order before the start of the third season. In addition to Ishant Sharma and Mendis, KKR’s attack will be shored up by the arrival of Shane Bond.

With that, at least something about the KKR side will have a settled look now.

Watch for: It is not easy to justify a going rate of $750,000 but for the raw pace he brings, not to mention the focus and commitment, Bond could do KKR a world of good, provided he remains injury-free.

MUMBAI INDIANS (MI)

Mumbai Indians have assembled a competent team a piece at a time. In Sachin Tendulkar, Zaheer Khan and Harbhajan Singh, the team borrows its core from the Indian ODI side, and along with Shikhar Dhawan, Ambati Rayudu and Abhishek Nayar the local contingent will be as strong as the international recruits.

The acquisition of Kieron Pollard for $750,000 plus will furnish the batting order with a calm finisher and a lot of firepower, especially in the later stages — the lack of which cost MI a few crucial matches in both seasons. J. P. Duminy might not have had a great season coming in, but one would back him to come out of his slump, given that he has had some time to get himself used to the conditions over the last few months. It would also help that Harbhajan Singh is in his camp.

All-rounders Ryan McLaren and Dwayne Bravo, and Lasith Malinga with his fast slingers will round off an impressive collection of individual talent. Where MI finishes this time will be a direct function of how the team is able to harness the considerable gifts of its constituent members, something that might be down to the captain Tendulkar.

Watch for: Ryan McLaren. Capable of touching 90mph with the ball, he is also a biffer who plays in the middle order and if things go well, could well be back in contention for the national side.

RAJASTHAN ROYALS (RR)

If one were to make the inevitable allusion to the English Premier League, RR would come closest to replicating the general airs of an Everton. Shrewd buys, tactical plays and a wily gaffer went into the making of a tough team and in the first edition, RR went all the way to claim the title. In its wake, two of its leading performers, Yusuf Pathan and Shane Watson, made it into the respective national squads.

The second season saw two more players — Ravindra Jadeja and Munaf Patel — thrown into national contention, or at least close to it.

Injuries to key players resulted in a campaign that floundered, but given Warne’s tactical nous, his ability to juggle resources and his skills as a motivator, RR will always be a dangerous outfit.

Shaun Tait bowling in tandem with Morne Morkel presents another devastating combination and if the batting can work itself into any kind of form, RR can still cause a few surprises.

Watch for: With a game built on pace, a premise that is basic to his trade, Tait has all the tools for being a withering T20 bowler — pace, yorkers and the surprise bouncer. Under the tutelage of Warne, the injury-prone Tait has another chance to clamber out of international wilderness.

ROYAL CHALLENGERS BANGALORE (RCB)

Another team that borrows heavily from the members of its state team, RCB will be served by the likes of Manish Pandey, Rahul Dravid, Abhimanyu Mithun, Robin Uthappa and Vinay Kumar. Retaining the back-bone of the team that reached the Ranji finals, Anil Kumble would not have to depend unduly on the bunch of foreign players or high profile signings to keep RCB’s run going. Praveen Kumar and Virat Kohli are the other Indians in the fray and add to the existing blend the South African quartet of Dale Steyn, Jacques Kallis, Mark Boucher and R. van der Merwe, the Kiwi dasher Ross Taylor and Aussie Cameron White, it is not very difficult to figure how RCB was able to execute the turnaround in the second edition.

Eoin Morgan, the only addition to the squad this season, is an unconventional and audacious stroke-maker who already has two ODI hundreds under his belt.

The team has the makings of an efficient unit and anything less than a semifinal appearance will be a disappointment.

Watch for: Srivats Goswami started his T20 career with a 50 on debut and played a steady hand in Bengal’s one-day side this season. Kumble will play Goswami at some point in the tournament and the south-paw can be expected to enhance his growing reputation.