From the big hitting of the World Cup, now to the big hitting of the Indian Premier League, which is back in 2015 for its eighth season. Where this once felt like a jumpy upstart of a competition, it now feels very much a part of the global cricketing calendar, even if the build-up to this year’s competition was overshadowed by the World Cup.
The eight teams are back to battle for the biggest title in franchise cricket – hardly a sentence for the traditionalists, that. We pick out our ones to watch from each franchise and have a stab at picking the winners.
Chennai Super Kings
MS Dhoni is an obvious place to look, having captained CSK since the IPL’s inception and being the biggest name in Indian, if not global, cricket. Yet cracks are starting to appear in the 33 year olds’ armoury. He relinquished the Test captaincy of India suddenly and unexpectedly and his name has kept on popping up in connection with match fixing in this very competition.
He is a guaranteed starter for his franchise and the spotlight will be on him at all times. Is this a new Dhoni, or will it be business as usual?
In a squad with a distinctly South African feel about it, with JP Duminy as skipper, Quinton de Kock as wicketkeeper and Albie Morkel and Imran Tahir in the ranks, it will be the superstar sprinkling of Indian talent that will underpin the Daredevils’ title tilt. The most expensive acquisition at this season’s auction, Yuvraj Singh has an awful lot to live up to.
He was omitted from India’s World Cup squad and the impression is that he’s a man on the wane. The Daredevils have made a significant outlay on their bet that he isn’t. For my part, I firmly believe that his best days are long gone.
Kings XI Punjab
Last year’s beaten finalists are packed with foreign stars, although it was Indian keeper/batsman Wriddhiman Saha’s century that nearly won the title and propelled the diminutive Saha into India’s World Cup thoughts. Of a side that can call on George Bailey, Glenn Maxwell, Thisara Perera, Mitchell Johnson, Shaun Marsh and David Miller – with only four playing at any given time – one name stands out.
That name is Maxwell. The Australian was in scintillating form last season, bashing Kings XI towards the final with his fearless hitting. With confidence high after a successful World Cup with Australia, no one will be looking forward to bowling at the unorthodox Aussie.
Kolkata Knight Riders
The defending champions are still led by the ageing Gautham Gambhir, a man who missed out on India’s World Cup defence and limped out of international cricket with a couple of sorry performances in England last year. As with Yuvraj, Gambhir looks another Indian superstar of yesteryear.
One of KKR’s most important performers of recent seasons has been the West Indian mystery man, Sunil Narine. Since last year’s success, however, Narine has served a bowling ban meted out by the ICC, but has now been cleared to bowl in this year’s IPL. Will his remodelled action be as effective as his old action? Will he get called for chucking again? All eyes will be on that right elbow the first time Gambhir throws him the ball.
Whilst captain Rohit Sharma and Australian Aaron Finch will doubtless form one of the most dangerous opening pairings at this year’s competition, it is to the bowling that we are looking on this occasion.
Perhaps I am still wearing the rose-tinted spectacles that he left after a mesmerising short stint that propelled Surrey to promotion to Division 1 of the County Championship in 2011, but Pragyan Ojha holds a fond place in my heart and will be crucial to Mumbai’s title charge here. Harbhajan Singh’s best days, like a few others here, are behind him, so Ojha will have a central role to play.
The first ever winners of the IPL, way back in 2008, have always performed on something of a shoestring budget compared to their rivals. Not for them, the multi-million dollar purchases of the likes of Yuvraj. Instead, they are led by Australian all-rounder Shane Watson and carry the air of a cannily assembled squad.
James Faulkner, Tim Southee, Ben Cutting, Steven Smith and Rusty Theron join Watson as key overseas players – fielding Watson, Faulkner, Southee and Smith should ask questions of every side they face.
But it is the home grown talent of Ajinkya Rahane that I’m singling out. I’m a longstanding admirer of the diminutive batsman and firmly believe that his is a talent that will last in the Indian middle order for many years to come. He doesn’t carry the superstar status of a Virat Kohli or a Shikhar Dhawan or a Rohit Sharma, but don’t let that fool you into believing he is any less of a player than those. I believe he is better.
Royal Challengers Bangalore
RCB always arrive with something of an all-star cast and 2015 is no exception; Virat Kohli captains a side that can call upon AB de Villiers, Chris Gayle, Mitchell Starc, Rilee Roussouw, Dinesh Karthik and Darren Sammy.
It is Ashok Dinda, though, that I will be keeping an eye on. The right arm quick is something of an IPL journeyman, having represented KKR, Pune Warriors and Delhi before now. He flirted with the India side, playing 13 ODIs and nine T20s, but at 31, that ship has likely sailed for Dinda. Can he bring his experience of the IPL to this RCB side? Whatever the result, who doesn’t enjoy seeing a headband wearing fast bowler tearing in?!
The withdrawal of Kevin Pietersen was a late blow to the Sunrisers, but David Warner has replaced him as skipper and Kane Williamson was brought into the squad, although KP will return should Sunrisers finish in the top four and qualify for the knock-out stages.
It is Lokesh Rahul who I am looking to, however. The 22 year old made his Test debut in Melbourne at the end of 2014 and had made one of the worst debuts I’ve ever seen. To his immense credit, however, he recovered and notched a maiden Test century in his third Test innings in Sydney at the very start of 2015. He will feature prominently for Sunrisers here, so will need to show similar strength of character to put himself firmly on the Indian selectors’ radar.
It is difficult to look past the big guns and I have a good feeling that Kings XI Punjab can go one better than 2014 and lift the trophy for the first time in the franchise’s history. Chennai Super Kings also look incredibly well balanced, with a blend of homegrown superstars and overseas talent making it look likely that they will, as is customary, finish in the top four.
I can’t look beyond those two at the moment, but there will doubtless be a few surprises along the way, with each franchise having a plethora of strengths, it could be the most exciting IPL yet.
By Miles Reucroft