One of the two debutants last year, the Gujarat Lions, a team assembled on the back of smart buys and clever calculations, took off to a great start in the beginning of the season. A breakdown towards the end of the tournament last year saw the Orange Army throw away a golden opportunity to have a go at the title in their first attempt.
One year later, now in their last season as an IPL franchise, the Lions have yet again captured unknown players to fill in the gaps around their bigger stars. Yet, Suresh Raina is a pale shadow of his former self, Dwayne Bravo has retired from international cricket, and Brendon McCullum is also an ex-NZ player. Their biggest star, Ravindra Jadeja, is out with injury, and Dwayne Bravo is also set to miss the first leg of the tournament. In such a scenario, it’ll be up to the younger lot to step up and face the challenge.
Here’s what the likely XI will be for their first match against Kolkata Knight Riders:
This man can take some credit for taking brand IPL to the heights it is on now. His swashbuckling century in the first ever match of the tournament.
He might have retired last year, but Brendon McCullum still has enough explosives in his arsenal to demolish several bowling attacks. He had a lacklustre Pakistan Super League, but trust the Kiwi to fire all cylinders in the tournament he absolutely loves.
Last year, McCullum couldn’t get going for the Lions: the additional burden of captaincy in the first few matches must have had an effect of him. He managed just one fifty in 16 games, and looked off colour.
The Lions’ most expensive buy in the 2017 auctions, Jason Roy is an addition to the long list of potential opening partners for Brendon McCullum. He has been in fine form for the England team, and came in the limelight after a stunning performance in the World T20 last year, and also impressed in the India series, notching up 50+ scores in each of the innings.
The swashbuckling opener, in the company of an equally explosive Brendon McCullum, can really set the ball rolling in the first few overs. Given that there are dependable middle order batsmen to follow, Roy can go for the kill straight away.
The IPL has been a game of musical chairs for Finch, who has seen himself jump from Rajasthan Royals to Delhi Daredevils, and then from Pune to Hyderabad and then Mumbai. He is currently in his second year with the Lions, having put in a solid performance last year with five fifties. A number of openers in contention allows the versatile Finch to drop one down.
The 30-year old has been the No.1 batsman in the world in T20s, as well as the captain of the Australian T20I side. His explosive hitting is a big plus to the Lions. His overall IPL strike-rate of 125, however, is a tad below what he can offer. A strong season this year might help correct the skewed numbers.
Once the lynchpin of the Indian middle order in ODIs, Suresh Raina has had a tough last year. Yet, the hardworking batsman pushed his way back into the Indian T20I side, and starred in the Bengaluru T20I against England, showing what exactly he can offer with a stroke-filled half century.
The IPL is Suresh Raina’s party: the leading run-getter of the tournament has played in all nine previous seasons, the bulk of it being for the Chennai Super Kings. The captaincy of the Lions shows how integral he is to the team’s plans. For Raina himself, another good season in the IPL can open doors for an Indian ODI recall, one which could start with the Champions Trophy.
The mercenary keeps changing teams every season, but has stuck to the Lions for the second season in a row. He had a decent year for the Lions in 2016, scoring more than 300 runs with three fifties to his credit. Yet, given that Karthik is one of the most experienced players of the tournament, more will be expected out of him, given that now he is one of the senior players in the team.
His keeping, apart from a few minor blemishes, is clean, and gives the Lions the liberty to include an additional batsman in the team. The versatile batsman can mould his game according to the situation, which is his biggest asset, and can change gears if the team demands. Runs from Karthik at the crucial No.4 position can be a big boost to Lions’ fortunes.
LOWER MIDDLE ORDER
One of the most exciting youngsters to be currently playing domestic cricket in India, Ishan Kishan has managed to etch a name for himself after leading India in the U-19 World Cup last year. A stylish left-handed batsman, Kishan has been earmarked for future greatness because of his level-headed batting and attacking instincts.
Last year, he was tried out by the Lions for a few games, but looked undercooked for the platform. After a strong Ranji season, and having played under MS Dhoni in the domestic limited-overs tournaments, a much more evolved Kishan can bring a lot more to the table for Lions.
You can read his recent interaction with Sportskeeda here.
The feisty Australian is a welcome addition to any T20 side for the sheer variety and balance that he offers. A left-arm pacer with good control over his slower balls and cutters, Faulkner can clog the flow of runs in the middle and death overs with his canny variations. Add to that his ferocious batting, and you have an all-around star who can be a vital piece.
The unflappable Aussie has changed teams regularly since joining IPL in 2011, but has been retained by the Lions despite a poor showing in 2016, one which saw him pick just two wickets from seven games.
The IPL has been the springboard for players hailing from the corners of the country to rub shoulders with the best in the business. Shadab Jakati has been playing first class cricket since 1998, but the IPL helped him achieve his true potential and give it a wider audience to witness.
A smart left-arm spinner who keeps the lines tight, Jakati is a useful weapon in the middle overs for straining the flow of runs. He induces mistakes in the batsmen with his pinpoint deliveries, turning the ball enough to create the lingering doubt in the opposition.
He might be looked over Shivil Kaushik, the mystery spinner who grabbed eyeballs with his quirky action last year, but falls short on match practice unlike a domestic regular like Jakati.
One of the few pacers who have featured in every edition of the IPL, Dhawal Kulkarni has been a proven performer in domestic cricket. His ability to generate swing with the new ball makes him the ideal opening bowler, despite his pace being only gentle.
Last year, he combined with Praveen Kumar to give Lions some solid starts, keeping the screws tight on the batsman in the powerplays. He played for the Indian team in 2016 on the tour against Zimbabwe, highlighting the selectors’ interest in keeping him in the long run. A strong IPL season, similar to last years (when he took 18 wickets from 14 games), can open doors for another stint in the Indian blue.
He might have aged and become off-colour, but Praveen Kumar, the wily old fox, knows just when to bring his A game to the fore. Disciplinary and fitness issues have kept his Team India appearances to a few, but the 30-year old has gained enough experience over several years in the domestic circles and the IPL to perfect his trade.
He can swing the ball like a banana both ways, has a sharp mind that can out-think the batsman, and has years of knowledge to put to use. He can be the ideal mentor to the host of youngsters waiting in the wings to follow. If Praveen can keep his fitness levels up, the Lions need not worry about their death bowling.
This exciting fast bowler, bustling with energy, could very well be the X-factor Gujarat was looking for. An out-and-out pacer, Thampi can hurl the ball consistently over the 140s barrier, and brings them the variety that they require with the other two pacers being seam bowlers.
Coached at the MRF pace academy, Thampi stitched in some impressive efforts in the inter-zonal T20 tournament, and followed it up with a stint as a net bowler with the Indian team. He got purchased for Rs. 85 lakhs, kickstarting a young career that could go to great heights. Owner Keshav Bansal admitted that they wanted to bolster their bowling resources this year, and the addition of Thampi in the team highlights just that.