Rajkot, April 6 (Cricketnmore): Two-time champions Kolkata Knight Riders (KKR) will look to improve their record against Gujarat Lions and start their Indian Premier League (IPL) campaign with a win when the two sides meet at the Saurashtra Cricket Association Stadium here on Friday.
In 2016, KKR lost both their matches to the Lions with the Suresh Raina-skippered franchise registering a comfortable six-wicket victory here.
After restricting the Gautam Gambhir led Knight Riders to a pedestrian 124/8 in 20 overs, the Lions just lost four wickets in their run chase with Raina leading from the front with an unbeaten 53.
At the Eden Gardens earlier last season, the Lions had won by five wickets.
Riding on a superlative league stage performance, Lions topped the points table only to return second best in both the qualifiers against Royal Challengers Bangalore and eventual champions Sunrisers Hyderabad.
KKR on the other hand, finished fourth in the league stage, losing to Sunrisers in the eliminator.
This season, while the Lions will look to outdo their first stint, which was by all means a successful one, KKR would pull no punches in performing better than last time where their sojourn was marked by inconsistency.
Lions have a top-heavy look to their batting lineup with the likes of Brendon McCullum, Dwayne Smith, Aaron Finch, Suresh Raina, and Dinesh Karthik expected to start.
To put things into perspective, the Lions were the only team last year to score 70 or more in the Powerplay - a feat they achieved four times.
Five of their batsmen -- Raina, Finch, McCullum, Karthik and Smith -- aggregated more than 300 runs. None of their rivals had more than three batsmen who aggregated 300 and above.
But on Friday, Lions will miss the services of West Indian T20 specialist allrounder Dwayne Bravo who is injured and man-of-the-series in the India-Australia Test series Ravindra Jadeja who is cooling his heels after a long Test season.
The Lions will pin hopes on Karthik who was the cornerstone of Tamil Nadu's success in the Vijay Hazare and Deodhar Trophy where they finished winners.
Karthik amassed 854 runs in 12 innings - the fourth-highest in a List A season in India.
He notched up match-winning centuries in both finals, in addition to four half-centuries in his last nine 50-over games.
Jadeja will be hugely missed in the initial stages. The World No 1 Test bowler -- who had poor returns of eight wickets from 40.1 overs last season -- bagged 71 wickets in 13 home Tests - the third-highest ever in a season - and scored 556 runs.
Coming to the away side, Andre Russell, who is currently serving out a one-year ban for a doping-code violation, will leave KKR dented.
Considered "irreplaceable" by captain Gambhir, the burly West Indian allrounder scored 188 runs in 12 matches last term, more importantly scalping 15 wickets at a mean average of 19.40.
Although new recruit Rovman Powell, a vital cog in Jamaica Tallawah's title-win in the Caribbean Premier League, is portrayed as Russell's replacement, the big-hitting rookie will know he has big shoes to fill.
New Zealand all-rounder Colin de Grandhomme replace Russell a few days back.
KKR's strength this time lies in the balance of the team. With the likes of England allrounder Chris Woakes and Kiwi pacer Trent Boult being roped in, and a good mix of domestic batsmen in Gambhir, Robin Uthappa, Manish Pandey and vice-captain Suryakumar Kumar, the men in purple are expected to do well.
In Bangladesh's Shakib Al Hasan, currently the world's best allrounder across all formats, and spinners Sunil Narine and chinaman Kuldeep Yadav they have the arsenal to make the most of slow and low wickets especially at home. Shakib though Shakib's will him miss the opening match due to national team commitments in Sri Lanka.
The pace battery with in-form India pacer Umesh Yadav, Boult, Woakes and Powell among others, also looks better than previous seasons.
Overall, it remains to be seen which teams gets a better start to the 10th edition of the cash-rich league. For KKR, a win on the road will do their confidence a world of good.
Likely playing XI:
Gujarat Lions: Brendon McCullum, Dwayne Smith, Aaron Finch, Suresh Raina (captain), Dinesh Karthik (wicketkeeper), Ishan Kishan, James Faulkner, Praveen Kumar, Shadab Jakati, Dhawal Kulkarni, Shivil Kaushik
Kolkata Knight Riders: Gautam Gambhir (captain), Robin Uthappa (wicketkeeper), Manish Pandey, Yusuf Pathan, Suryakumar Yadav, Rovman Powell, Chris Lynn, Chris Woakes, Kuldeep Yadav, Trent Boult, Piyush Chawla