Kolkata Knight Riders skipper Gautam Gambhir during a training session. (PTI)
Kolkata: The sixth season of the IPL will begin with defending champions Kolkata Knight Riders hosting a depleted Delhi Daredevils on Wednesday, thus setting into motion a run of 76 matches across 12 venues as the Indian sporting landscape switches to coloured clothing, cheerleaders and lots of sixes. Not much can be gauged from the first match of IPL 6 considering the unpredictability of the format and the duration of the tournament, but Delhi, who have been hit by injuries - the latest is that Virender Sehwag may also miss the match - and will be hoping to go one better than 2012 and make the final, would love to get off the mark with victory.
KKR are champions having enjoyed a strong run in IPL 5 which culminated in a memorable five-wicket win with two deliveries to spare against Chennai Super Kings. The hero on that night was Manvinder Bisla, the domestic journeyman wicketkeeper-batsman who shone on that starry night of May 27. It is on such domestic players like Bisla that KKR will again rely on, especially with the cap on overseas players.
That means Bisla, left-arm spinner Iqbal Abdulla, medium pacers L Balaji and Rajat Bhatia, Yusuf Pathan (who had a torrid IPL 5), Shami Ahmed, Laxmi Shukla, Debabrata Das and Manoj Tiwary will have to be consistent. Success in the IPL is so often about how the local players support the international stars, and how much KKR extract from the aforementioned names will ease the workload of Jacques Kallis, Brendon McCullum (who won't play against Delhi owing to a hamstring pull), Sunil Narine and Brett Lee. Lee will be boosted by the arrival of fellow Australian James Pattinson, and it will also be fascinating to see how and when KKR pair up Narine with Sri Lankan offspinner Sachithra Senanayake on whom $650,000 was spent at the February auction.
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.
It won't be easy, because Delhi have been dealt three major blows. Kevin Pietersen, Jesse Ryder and Varun Aaron have all been ruled out with injury which leaves the team reliant on a handful of experienced players. Should Sehwag be ruled out of Wednesday's opener, Delhi would be left reliant on David Warner and skipper Mahela Jayawardene. With the ball, the team's big assets are South African quick Morne Morkel and the Indian pair of Umesh Yadav and Irfan Pathan. The acquisitions of Johan Botha and Jeevan Mendis have bolstered a weak spin attack.
On a tacky Eden Gardens surface, the role that spin plays is expected to be big. KKR could then hand Senanayake an IPL debut in the season opener, pitting him and Narine and Abdulla against a top-heavy Delhi batting order. But that would mean dropping an overseas batsman, which would leave a long tail. Delhi may not yet field two overseas spinners in Botha and Mendis, instead relying on Shahbaz Nadeem to partner one of the two new signings.
Head-to-head, KKR and DD have come up against each other eight times across five seasons - there was one washout in 2008 - with KKR owning a 4:3 advantage.
Kolkata Knight Riders: 1 Manvinder Bisla (wk), 2 Gautam Gambhir (capt), 3 Jacques Kallis, 4 Manoj Tiwary, 5 Yusuf Pathan, 6 Laxmi Shukla, 7 Rajat Bhatia, 8 Iqbal Abdulla, 9 Brett Lee, 10 L Balaji, 11 Sunil Narine
Delhi Daredevils: 1 Mahela Jayawardene (capt), 2 David Warner, 3 Naman Ojha (wk), 4 Unmukt Chand, 5 Kedar Jadhav, 6 Venugopal Rao, 7 Irfan Pathan, 8 Johan Botha, 9 Umesh Yadav, 10 Morne Morkel, 11 Shahbaz Nadeem