In case you missed the loud ads on the radio or the promos on TV or all the conversation on the internet, the 11th edition of the Indian Premier League (IPL) begins this weekend. It marks the comeback of two-time winners Chennai Superkings and former champions Rajasthan Royals, who replace Gujarat Lions and Rising Pune Supergiants after facing two-year suspensions on corruption charges.
Another controversy though marks this year’s tournament even before it begins as both Australian players and IPL team captains Steve Smith (Rajasthan Royals) and David Warner (Sunrisers Hyderabad) were banned from this edition for their roles in the ball tampering scandal that rocked international cricket last month. This obviously changes the dynamics of both teams, especially forcing the think tanks to rethink their strategies once again after the recent auction.
Elsewhere, holders Mumbai Indians look set on paper to embark on their title defence while Delhi Daredevils seek Gautam Gambhir’s guidance to revive their wretched fortunes. In the post-Gambhir era, the Kolkata Knightriders now rely on young blood and various T20 specialists. Having finished at the bottom of the table last season, Virat Kohli’s glamorous Royal Challengers Bangalore will look to seek inspiration from their captain for their maiden title.
Here’s a team-by-team breakup of this year’s squads and predictions for IPL 2018:
Strengths: Under MS Dhoni’s leadership, CSK have retained the core that has made them one of the most consistent teams in the tournament. All-time IPL top-scorer Suresh Raina is back and so are Ravi Jadeja and Dwayne Bravo. Other familiar names feature South African skipper Faf du Plessis and Murali Vijay. The addition of Harbhajan SIngh, Kedar Jadhav and Ambati Rayudu further strengthens the Indian contingent and lends balance to both the middle and the lower order.
Weaknesses: Most of the team’s important players are on the other side of 30 and the absence of a star T20 player could hurt them in the long run. Shardul Thakur will have to shoulder most of the fast bowling responsibility in the absence of a senior Indian pacer.
Verdict: The Whistle Phodu Army looks good for a playoff berth. We won’t be surprised even if they finish as high as second in their comeback season.
Strengths: The acquisition of Gambhir in the auction provides the capital club much-needed leadership. In Colin Munro, they have on of the best T20 batsmen in the world while a pace battery of Trent Boult, Kagiso Rabada and Mohammad Shami look formidable.
Weaknesses: The middle order looks a little thin with the inexperienced Prithvi Shaw, Shreyas Iyer and Rishabh Pant being looked upon as the mainstays. But it could also prove to be a great platform for these young Indian players to script a breakthrough season.
Verdict: If the batting provides ample support to the bowlers Delhi might have an outside chance to occupy the last place among the top four. Our underdog choice this season.
Kings XI Punjab
Strengths: Led by Ravichandran Ashwin, the bowling lineup of Axar Patel, Mohit Sharma, Marcus Stoinis and Andrew Tye could prove handy across different surfaces.
Weaknesses: The lack of world-class T20 batsmen could prove to be a major Achilles Heel. The old legs of Chris Gayle and Yuvraj Singh are not once what they once were; if Aaron Finch and David Miller don’t click, it’s all bust no bail for Preity Zinta & Co.
Verdict: It was fun while it lasted, but KXIP’s spirited antics from the first few seasons have hardly ever been emulated. Expect them to finish among the bottom three.
Kolkata Knight Riders
Strengths: You could see coach Jacques Kallis having a clear vision for the team during the auction. KKR has a specialist at every position right from the top-order to the bowling department. Life could be different after former skipper Gambhir, but not bad necessarily.
Weaknesses: The depth of the KKR squad is pretty light. Members of India’s young under-19 World Cup winning squad Shubhman Gill, Shubham Mavi and Kamlesh Nagarkoti have big expectations to fulfill. They could look at their senior Kuldeep Yadav for inspiration though.
Verdict: With the fireworks of Chris Lynn and the consistency of Robin Uthappa up the order and the expertise of Andre Russell, Mitch Johnson and talisman Sunil Narine to accompany, a top four finish seems highly possible. Third, to be precise.
Strengths: The defending champions have a formidable Indian contingent in Rohit Sharma, the Pandya brothers, Jasprit Bumrah, Suryakumar Yadav and Siddhesh Lad. The explosive Evin Lewis provides the Caribbean flair alongside Kieron Pollard. Mustafizur Rahman and Pat Cummins form a world-class fast bowling duo with their variety.
Weaknesses: The burden of expectations combined with a familiar complacency could be the only reasons for MI to falter. A young keeper in Ishan Kishan, and a back-up in Aditya Tare, leave some scope for improvement.
Verdict: It would take a calamity for Mumbai to not finish in the top two.
Strengths: Ajinkya Rahane proved his worth as a captain in India’s defeat of Australia in the Dharamshala test last year. Can he pull off a Shane Warne, with Steve smith now gone? The opportunity has definitely presented itself. He has a hungry Ben Stokes and an adept Jos Buttler in his troops.
Weaknesses: Looking at the squad, it’s difficult to even select 11 players who are good enough to play cricket at this level. The failure to capture solid Indian recruits in the auction will come back to haunt RR.
Verdict: A last-place finish is not off the table.
Royal Challengers Bangalore
Strengths: The dream top-three of Virat Kohli, Chris Gayle and AB de Villiers sees the replacement of the big West Indian with an equally explosive Brendon McCullum. Kiwi all-rounder Colin de Grandhomme has had a great home season in the build up to the IPL while Chris Woakes is a valuable addition to any squad.
Weaknesses: The fast bowling unit could be the undoing for the Challengers, just like the previous years. Umesh Yadav and Md Siraj are not what you would exactly call T20 specialists.
Verdict: As always, expectations are really high from the Bangalore outfit. But their bowling doesn’t look like it could carry them close to the finish line. We know it would offend a lot of bookmakers who tout them as favourites this year, but a possible fifth/sixth place looms.
Strengths: Bhuvneshwar Kumar is one of the best limited bowlers in the world and Rashid Khan is the number one ranked bowler in both T20s and ODIs. Skipper Kane Williamson would do well to make the most of a depleted squad.
Weaknesses: The absence of David Warner comes as a big blow. As a result, the team suddenly looks bottom-heavy with heavy reliance on the likes of Manish Pandey, Yusuf Pathan and Wriddhiman Saha for holding up the middle-order.
Verdict: It would be a tough fight between DD and SRH for that fourth playoff spot. They have the pedigree, they just need direction.