The former India, KKR and Rajasthan Royals batsman runs his eye over the IPL squads, picking ideal starting XIs for each team
Defending champions the Mumbai Indians were perhaps the only team who had all the bases covered before the auction earlier this year. Still, in addition to the strong squad they already had, they took Trent Boult and Sherfane Rutherford from Delhi, and also acquired Chris Lynn and Nathan Coulter-Nile. Mumbai have always had depth in all departments and this season isn't going to be any different, save perhaps for the inexperience in spin bowling, given the conditions in the UAE. Lasith Malinga pulling out late presented an opportunity to add a spinner to their ranks but they chose to further bolster their fast bowling with the addition of James Pattinson.
If it takes experience to do well in a tournament like the IPL, the Chennai Super Kings have plenty. When the CSK 2.0 squad was announced a couple of years ago, the critics had a field day. The common perception was that such an old squad wasn't likely to last more than a season, and besides, injuries and form could be a major concern throughout. There was also the fact that a lot of the CSK players weren't playing competitive cricket through the year, which seemed like a potential weakness, at least in the initial stages of a tournament. But two successful seasons in a row proved everyone wrong. The same concerns are being voiced again, but in hushed tones now. The absence of Suresh Raina and Harbhajan Singh has limited MS Dhoni's options, which means CSK can't really afford both a major loss of form or injury to any of their remaining key players.
Though death bowling and finishing with the bat are still concerns for the Royal Challengers Bangalore, they might be slightly less grave than in previous years. That the grounds are going to be a lot bigger and pitches less batsman-friendly should work in their favour. Also, the likes of Shivam Dubey, Washington Sundar and Navdeep Saini are no longer new kids on the block - all of them have started appearing for India in T20Is regularly, so it's fair to expect bigger contributions from them. While Moeen Ali, Chris Morris, Dubey and Sundar don't make the best lower order in T20 cricket, it's not as bad as some RCB lower orders of previous years.
Kolkata Knight Riders have the distinct advantage of their front-line overseas players coming into the IPL with some competitive cricket under their belts. And the fitness concerns around some of their young Indian fast bowlers seem to be a thing of the past. This IPL also presents an opportunity for Shubman Gill to not just cement a place at the top of the order but to take significant strides in using this platform to further his India dreams. With Piyush Chawla no longer around, the burden of spin bowling will rest on Sunil Narine and Kuldeep Yadav. I have a strong feeling that Yadav will do well in the UAE.
The Sunrisers Hyderabad were top-heavy last year, and they are top-heavy this year too. Though they have tried to address the problem somewhat, things might not really change unless one of their young Indian batsmen simply explodes lower down the order this year. The pitches in the UAE and the lack of batting depth tempt you to play Kane Williamson, who is too good a player to be warming the bench, but that's not really feasible if Jonny Bairstow partners David Warner at the top, since Rashid Khan is a shoo-in. It'll be interesting to see if they manage to give Mitchell Marsh a lot of games, for that would mean not playing Mohammad Nabi, who has been very impressive with both bat and ball in the recently concluded CPL.
One team that can happily play only three overseas players if they wished is the Delhi Capitals. The depth in Indian batting options might mean their latest acquisition, Ajinkya Rahane, sits out. Their spin department, comprising R Ashwin, Axar Patel, Sandeep Lamichhane and Amit Mishra is at par with CSK's; any three of those four could play every single game. Last year they had a slight problem with an inexperienced lower-middle order, but with the addition of Alex Carey, Shimron Hetmeyer and Marcus Stoinis, that has been taken care of. If this team plays to its full potential, they have a real chance of winning their first ever IPL title.
The Kings XI Punjab have a history of changing captains and coaches, and this season is no different. KL Rahul is in his first assignment as an IPL captain, and Anil Kumble is the new head coach. They do have a few runaway match-winners in Rahul, Nicholas Pooran and Glenn Maxwell, but they also have gaps to fill. The way Mayank Agarwal has progressed as a batsman in the last 12 months, this should be a breakthrough year for him as an opener alongside his friend and state-mate Rahul. But that would mean no place for Chris Gayle in the starting XI. Punjab's bowling seems a little thin in both spin and pace departments, and that could cost them a place in the final four this season.
The Rajasthan Royals will ink four of their overseas players - Jos Buttler, Steven Smith, Ben Stokes and Jofra Archer - in for every game. If they are fit and available, even a slight dip in form for any of those four doesn't warrant them being replaced. But that also means that the Royals' combination can't change too much, and the lesser-fancied Indian players must fit into the other slots. Their bowling is heavy on quantity but a little low on quality, barring Archer and Shreyas Gopal. For RR to have a good season, their big four must win the majority of games on their own.
06:48:31 GMT, September 15, 2020: The Chennai Super Kings XI was modified to include Faf du Plessis in place of M Vijay