File photo of Bollywood super star and KKR co-owner Shah Rukh Khan. (AFP)
Kolkata: The bigul is ready to set off and add some razzmatazz to cricket - with Season Six of the Indian Premier League unleashing itself on the cricket pitch the day after a riveting opening ceremony set the stage on fire. The defending champions Kolkata Knight Rides are ready to face the daredevilry of Delhi Daredevils.
The bigger picture may appear heavily in favour of KKR, especially when a team has the Eden Gradens crowd at its back and the opponents appearing a depleted lot. But Twenty20 is not much short of lottery in disguise. It'll be foolhardy to take any team lightly in the Twenty20 arena, and Gautam Gambhir will know that when he goes out for the toss with Mahela Jayawardene.
But within this battle lay many mini battles that will be pivotal in deciding who wins this high-octane tournament opener. The Sunil Narine factor was instrumental in KKR's road to the title last year. Will he tie Delhi in knots once again? Irfan Pathan will be bowling to brother Yusuf. Who will win that battle? Who will make the right moves - Gambhir or Jayawardene?
The battle of the Pathans
When these two teams met for game two of IPL 5 at Eden Gardens, it was the younger Pathan brother who walked away smiling after clinching victory for Delhi.
Irfan bowled just one over, conceding nine runs, but walloped an unbeaten 40 off 20 balls batting at No. 3 to take his team to an eight-wicket win in their first match. On the other hand, his elder brother Yusuf got out for a duck and was given just one over which went for seven runs. In the return match in Delhi on May 7, KKR won six wickets but again it was Irfan who had a better match; he top-scored for the hosts with a 22-ball 36. Yusuf made seven not out. Yusuf ended up on the winning side this time, but had done little to impact the victory.
Though the pair has always insisted that there is no sibling rivalry, it will be interesting to see how each performs, particular if Irfan ends up bowling to Yusuf and vice-versa. Yusuf will be hoping to make an impact in IPL 6 after a dismal 2012 season, while Irfan is back in competitive action after an injury lay-off and will be hoping to earn an India recall for the ICC Champions Trophy in June.
Will Narine send Delhi into a spin?
This one promises to be a cracker. Narine was a huge factor in Kolkata's run to the title in IPL 5 with 25 wickets an average of 13.50 and economy rate of 5.47, and will be looking for an encore in the midst of a mediocre run at Test and ODI level. Jayawardene has been appointed Delhi's captain for IPL 6 and with Pietersen, Ryder and Sehwag absent, the former Sri Lanka skipper now becomes an even bigger player for the team.
Narine played just one match against Delhi in IPL 5, in which he took 2 for 23 in four overs. Narine didn't get to bowl to Sehwag, who fell early, but strangled David Warner, Jayawardene and Ross Taylor. In his latest Tweny20 innings, against Australia at Melbourne in January, Jayawardene smacked an unbeaten 61 off 45 balls in Sri Lanka's two-run win, and innings like that - he batted at No. 4 - are what Delhi need this season. The 35-year-old is adept at playing spin and boasts a Twenty20 career strike-rate of 132; whether he maintains that and ends with a flourish is crucial to Delhi's success in IPL 6.
In his path will be the all-sorts fingerspinner from Trinidad. Will Narine be able to silence Jayawardene?
Who will play the masterstrokes - Gambhir or Jayawardene?
Gambhir has been a major factor in KKR's rise from no-shows to title contenders in 2011 and winners in 2012, both as a batsman and leader. Jayawardene has plenty of experience captaining Sri Lanka at the international level, and this season has been entrusted with the Delhi captaincy. Both are lead players with the bat for the respective teams and determined, steely captains. Gambhir's captaincy and batting will be under the scanner because of the heightened level of expectancy and his ouster from India's Test team. Jayawardene will be expected to deliver as a batsman and in Pietersen and Ryder's absence his role will be important; as captain of a very skilled but temperamental IPL team he will be loaded with pressure. How each monitor their teams and call the shots on the field will be a tasty subplot to the IPL 6 opener.
Who's under pressure?
Having reached the pinnacle, the onus will be on KKR to repeat their success. They are now bona fide champions, and with that tag comes the burden of expectations - more so because of the passionate fans in Kolkata and the name Shah Rukh Khan. KKR's opponents will be out to spoil their party, starting with Delhi who will carry aspirations of winning the title this season.