It’s that time of the year again – auctions, bids, numerous intrigues and the ultimate composition of championship-winning teams eyeing the glittering trophy at the end of a gruelling schedule.
With numerous rule changes in place after a rather controversial sixth season, the powers-that-be have taken steps in the right direction in order to ensure a clean bidding process as well as a top-class, spiffy tournament. One of the key changes is the Right-To-Match option granted to all franchises, and it remains to be seen how they work it into their strategy, when the auction commences.
Overseas players have traditionally done well in this extravaganza. Beginning with Brendon McCullum’s blazing innings in the inaugural season, all subsequent editions have seen a phenomenal rise in the performance of foreigners. The likes of Mitchell Johnson and Cameron White have joined the party on more than one occasion, while old warhorses Adam Gilchrist (now retired) and Mike Hussey have provided rollicking starts quite a few times for their respective sides.
With the cap on such players increased to five per team, it gives the think-tank plenty of options depending on the conditions as well as the game-plan for each match.
Here is a list of five valuable overseas players who will make a mark in the seventh edition:
AB de Villiers (Royal Challengers Bangalore)
The South African live-wire will be happy to return to the format in which he has not only excelled at the international level, but also raised the excitement levels of die-hard Twenty20 fans across the subcontinent. The Chinnaswamy stadium will, once again, be set ablaze by his innovative pyrotechnics.
De Villiers needs neither an introduction nor an invitation to go after the bowling from the word go. Fast as a gazelle between the wickets, his quicksilver reflexes can still bring lots of runs even if he is unable to get the huge hits. I can picture him getting a century in this season in at least one match – provided Gayle and Kohli don’t beat him to it first!
Extremely agile and energetic behind the stumps or in the outfield, Abraham Benjamin de Villiers will be a prized target for the opposition. Exciting times ahead for the Pretoria native!
Dwayne Bravo (Chennai Super Kings)
One of the things I like about the current skipper of the WI limited-overs team is his ability to adapt between formats. Because he happens to be an all-rounder, his usefulness rises to incredible proportions for his side.
You can accuse the Chennai outfit of keeping the same faces in the squad for all of the editions of the IPL till date, but skipper MS Dhoni’s logic can hardly be faulted: he has a penchant for keeping seam-bowling all-rounders in the side. In a lightning-paced format, such players are a boon to any franchise, and Bravo has repaid his leader’s faith in full.
I’d like to see him bowl a lot of slower deliveries – his weapon of choice against free-flowing exponents of the willow – and a few short ones too. His nagging accuracy often drives rivals crazy; they don’t know whether to hit or graft when he comes on for a spell. That’s just the way Bravo sets up his victims.
A master of the Nataraja stroke and a clean striker of the ball, Bravo can accelerate in the latter stages without too much fuss. He also has the amazing ability to find the gaps a la Jayawardene – usually square of the wicket. I expect that he would certainly make this IPL edition his own, and steer the yellow brigade to a record third title.
Lasith Malinga (Mumbai Indians)
I’m not too sure why the defending champions retained the Sri Lankan slinger ahead of the Ashes hero Mitchell Johnson. Sure, he is a proven match-winner, but his form has been rather indifferent lately.
Malinga has the knack of striking telling blows at crucial moments. His toe-crushers have been the bane of many batsmen around the world. In addition, he is very difficult to get away during the ‘death’, when the opposition looks to go for broke in pursuit of quick runs. And he can also be counted upon to hit a couple into the stands if required.
However, if Malinga fails to deliver early on in the tournament, Mumbai could be under pressure to win games. Given that he is the team’s premier strike bowler at the moment, we might just see the re-emergence of the wild-haired pacer sending down his thunderbolts at the rival camp with the old fire and accuracy.
Shane Watson (Rajasthan Royals)
The Australian all-rounder will once again return to the franchise that he helped win the inaugural title in 2008, as the senior-most member of the side. With cricket legend Rahul Dravid walking off into the sunset on the completion of the Champions League in 2013, the blond-haired Watson will, in all likelihood, take on the mantle of captaincy in this season.
Watson has been in phenomenal form this year, starting with the tour of India for the seven-match ODI series in October and November, followed by reasonable performances in the return leg of the Ashes against England towards the end of the year. Twenty20 is a format he particularly enjoys, given the fact that only four overs can be sent down by a bowler, which allows him to focus on his batting.
A fine exponent of seam bowling, using the short ball to telling effect, Watson’s big hitting will give the Royals an added advantage. Along with Stuart Binny and James Faulkner, he forms an explosive combination, and his leadership skills will be put to the test – though I expect he will pass with flying colours!
Dale Steyn (Sunrisers Hyderabad)
I will put it in very simple terms – the South African speedster will make previous editions of the IPL look pale in comparison, with his powerful performances for the Hyderabad franchise this time around.
What makes me say this? In the second and final Test against India at Durban, Steyn roared back into form, making the ball talk as he blew away the opposition line-up without a second thought. Now as he returns to the shortest format, he will be brimming with a lot of confidence, and that means trouble for rival camps.
Steyn has been profligate in T20 on quite a few occasions, but he has bounced back well. His presence augurs well for Shikhar Dhawan and Co. – who will receive a major boost in their pace arsenal. He can provide early breakthroughs, and in a shortened match, recovering from the initial onslaught takes quite a bit of time. Dale can also hit the ball a long way, and a quick 20 or 30 runs down the order will give his side a fighting chance in most games.
I’m eager to see the Steyn gun blaze away on the flat track at Bangalore – a bloody vengeance is on the cards!