New Delhi: Former Pakistan skipper Wasim Akram says fitness and bench strength will hold key in the fifth edition of the Indian Premier League, which will see nine teams playing across the country over 54 days and 74 matches.
"With all the travel involved and summer upon us, fitness will be the key. Hence bench strength and fitness levels will be crucial," Akram, who is a bowling consultant with the Kolkata Knight Riders (KKR), said.
"It will be interesting to see how senior Indian players like (Sourav) Ganguly, (Rahul) Dravid, (Sachin) Tendulkar, (Virender) Sehwag and Zaheer (Khan) cope up. They all have major roles to play for their respective teams," he added.
Akram believed the pressure will be enormous on Ravindra Jadega who would look to justify the amount Chennai shelled out for him. "IPL 5 will tell us how much Ravindra Jadeja has evolved as a cricketer. He started promisingly on the Australian tour but faded out. He may have talent but he now has to justify the price that Chennai paid to acquire him. Jadeja really has to get his act together and the pressure will be enormous.
"At the same time, Virat Kohli will be under pressure to continue his good form. He has been a revelation so far for Indian cricket and deserves all the adulation he is getting on and off the field. Kohli now needs to keep his feet firmly grounded and enforce the belief that he is captaincy material," Akram said.
Akram backed KKR and Royal Challengers Bangalore to make the qualifiers, besides usual favourites Chennai Super Kings and Mumbai Indians. "It is difficult to predict which teams will end up as top four. The IPL has always thrown surprises and it has made or marred reputations.”
"But looking at the team combinations and back-up staff strength, Chennai, Kolkata, Bangalore and Mumbai should go all the way till the qualifiers and eliminators." The 45-year-old Akram is hoping to see New Zealander Brendon McCullum deliver the goods for KKR.
"Personally, I will like Brendon McCullum to fire for KKR. I am sure the pugnacious Kiwi will deliver better under Gautam Gambhir. There will be no personality clashes and both Gambhir and McCullum are professional enough to know what's best for Kolkata.
"Every IPL has had its share of heroes and zeroes. Chris Gayle took IPL 4 by storm. This is a good opportunity for Kevin Pietersen to justify the faith Delhi have in him."
Talking about his team, Akram said the strength lies in its balance. "Kolkata has had a change of coach. I believe Trevor Bayliss did extremely well for Sydney Sixers, who won the Big Bash League in Australia. Having coached Sri Lanka in the last World Cup, Bayliss knows the culture of subcontinent teams.
He should be a good influence. "But KKR's strength lies in their balance. They have a good skipper and the right combination of youth and experience. Manoj Tiwary, Yusuf Pathan and Iqbal Abdulla are extremely capable. Players like Jacques Kallis, Ryan ten Doeschate, McCullum and Eoin Morgan provide the depth and variety."
According to Akram, the IPL will provide the Indian fans an opportunity to have some fun, after the disastrous showings of the national team in recent times.
"The IPL has always exposed new players and I am sure this year's tournament will be no exception. But the focus will always be on the marquee players and the 'costliest' ones will be closely monitored by critics and fans alike."