New Delhi: At Eden Gardens on Wednesday evening, the sixth season of the IPL will get underway as hosts and current champions Kolkata Knight Riders take on Delhi Daredevils. It is a match-up of two very talented teams, but Delhi have been depleted by injuries to Kevin Pietersen, Jesse Ryder and Varun Aaron. KKR have no major injury concerns and at their services are a full-strength squad, bolstered in IPL 6 by the acquisition of Sri Lankan spinner Sachithra Senanayake and South African allrounder Ryan McLaren.
Ahead of the league opener tonight, we take a look at some of the head-to-head battles that make this match a keen contest.
Morne Morkel v Kolkata's top order
Last year's Purple Cap holder for most wickets in an IPL season, South Africa's Morkel is a vital cog in the Delhi machinery. With 25 wickets in 16 matches, Morkel proved to be a handful with the ball last season; just ask the batsmen who faced 160 dot balls out of the 378 deliveries Morkel bowled. Once again, the tall fast bowler can be counted on to strangle runs. Against a KKR top three comprising Gautam Gambhir, Jacques Kallis and one of Manvinder Bisla and Brendon McCullum, how Morkel operates up front will be massive to both team's progress.
In two meetings with KKR last season, Morkel took four wickets at 13.25 with a best of 3 for 18 in the eight-wicket win in Kolkata. In that match, he was responsible for three of the six KKR wickets that fell by the end of the seventh over, including the wickets of Kallis and Manoj Tiwary off successive balls. On a tacky Eden Gardens surface, how well Morkel varies his deliveries and uses his height to extract lift will be engaging to watch.
Irfan Pathan v Yusuf Pathan
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.
Sunil Narine v Mahela Jayawardene
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?
Gautam Gambhir v Mahela 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.
Johan Botha v Jacques Kallis
Two South Africans against each other. Kallis is a modern-day great who has learnt to score briskly in Twenty20 cricket while equally at ease falling back into sheet-anchor role when innings have started to unravel or wickets have fallen in a cluster on tricky surfaces. Botha is a tidy, stump-to-stump offspinner who has enjoyed success in Twenty20, even captaining his country in the format.
The 30-year-old Botha has taken 120 Twenty20 wickets in 136 matches an average of 25.54 and strike-rate of 23.5, with an economy rate of 6.23. In IPL 5, he played one match against KKR in which he bowled the match's only half-centurion, Tiwary, as Rajasthan Royals won by 22 runs. Now with Delhi, having been bought for $450,000 as the team looked to strengthen its spin attack, Botha could find himself in a leader's role. Having bowled to Kallis over the years in the South African nets, Botha would have a great understanding of how to operate against him. And it could prove a big difference should Botha get the ball inside the Powerplay overs.