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The tale of two teams on comeback

CSK looks battle ready for Kaala shooting
RRs have plenty of pluses, but also Stuart Binny

Chennai, Apr 3: There is a lot of excitement in the air with just a few days go for arguably the biggest cricketing spectacle in the world, which is of course to say that during the IPL there is no cricketing world outside India.

This year’s edition of the IPL has special significance as two popular teams, Chennai Super Kings and Rajasthan Royals, are back in the fray after allegedly serving out two-year bans. Why allegedly?  Because they didn’t go away for all practical purposes. Like the Pandavas who spent a year incognito during their vanavasam, both CSK and RR spent their ban vanavasam as Rising Pune Super Giant (nee Rising Pune Super Giants. It dropped the letter ‘s’ from its name after it did not perform well in the 2016 edition and analysed that the reason for its poor show was the name Rising Super Pune Giants) and Gujarat Lions. If you know your Indian film analogy, Rising Pune Super Giant and Gujarat Lions were basically Chennai Super Kings and Rajasthan Royals in spectacles and mustache.

With the pre-tournament focus firmly on CSK and RR, we check out what the two teams have been up to in the run up to the IPL 2018.

CSK: Ever since it reassembled after the ban, the team members have been practising hard — as you would expect a bunch of battle-hardened cricketing professionals — the very many lines from Rajinikanth’s yet to be released film Kaala. It would seem, going by the team videos, that the CSK team is rehearsing for a ‘star night’ show in Malaysia and Singapore. With the Tamil film industry on an extended strike, and Rajini and Kamal focusing much on politics, Dhoni and Co getting into movies cannot be ruled out. At least in Tamil Nadu, that is.

The CSK practice sessions have been stunning hits with around 10,000 people turning up to have a glimpse of the players at the ‘nets’, where stars like Dwayne Bravo have been mighty impressive with their — why not? — dance moves, making many wonder whether the CSK think-tank erred at the auction table by not bidding for Prabhu Deva or Raghava Lawrence who could have complemented Bravo pretty well from the other end.

Cricket-wise, the core of CSK team, one that had been hugely successful in the previous years till the playoffs, has been retained, which is to say the team is battle ready if it were playing in some veterans trophy tournament.  Otherwise, there are some question marks over the squad as it looks a bit old, at least on paper. How old are they? To give you a perspective, players who played in the first edition of the IPL along with Stephen Fleming, who is now already a veteran as a coach, are still in the squad. The BCCI rule against aged administrators is at the risk of kicking in for some of the CSK players.

Anyway, the bulk of the team XI picks itself on most occasions. On any given day,  CSK has the the players who can walk into the team for their, well, wicket-keeping skills alone. CSK can practically play an all wicket-keeper XI. MS Dhoni, Ambati Rayudu, Sam Billings, N Jagadeesan, Kedar Jadhav (and Murali Vijay too has once donned the WK gloves) can all keep wickets. This strategy clearly hit a team like Kings XI Punjab, which found out there were no WKs to pick at the auction table. (But KXIP’s bowling over the years has been such that the wicket-keeper was mostly taking strategic timeouts during overs).

The CSK braintrusts chose Harbhajan and Kings XI Punjab opted for R Ashwin at the auction, as if it was ordained by a Kollywood script for a film where babies are interchanged between two different families.

Among the overseas picks, Imran Tahir is an interesting pick, and he will relish bowling at the Chepauk’s traditionally spin-friendly conditions. It will be quite a sight to see him bowl, take a wicket, and run around the stadium in excitement, as he usually does,  and then totally pass out face-first into the turf. Running around the stadium in Chennai’s heat will entail that only. (Chennai bowlers mostly never show emotions after taking wickets. Because they barely have the strength to lift their palms up to high-five in Chennai’s heat).

Another player to watch out is of course Ngidi Lungi, especially for his pacy bowling and the many cringe-worthy silly puns and tired jokes that his name is bound to trigger among North Indians who somehow seem to believe that Lungi is the national dress of Tamilians and they wear it to everywhere, including wedding receptions.

Apart from the seniors, many would be interested to have a look at youngsters like Kanishk Seth, Monu Singh, Dhruv Shorey, Chaitanya Bishoi, Kshitiz Sharma and figure out how they look like,  because most of us have not even heard about them before. Among the lot, Kshitiz Sharma looks like a promising prospect, in that he has what discerning cricket writers generally look for in a young cricketer — a punnable name.

All in all, CSK has the players and skills needed to make the playoffs, especially in Dance India Dance contest.

Rajasthan Royals: Rajasthan Royals is one of the popular teams, not the least for the fact that whenever you googled for information on them, one of the accompanying suggestions was,  “people who searched this also searched for: Shilpa Shetty Hot”.

Rajasthan Royals after winning the inaugural edition of the IPL did very little of note to capture the headlines till they picked Sreesanth.  After that, they made it to the frontpage of newspapers.

This year, Rajasthan Royals have a strong team on paper, and if only they have had the services of Steve Smith, they would had a better team on sandpaper too. Now that we have got the inevitable tasteless joke out of the way, RRs look a solid outfit led by Ajinkya Rahane, who we hope will not do what his international skippers like M S Dhoni and Virat Kohli generally do in times of crisis in team selection: Which is to drop Ajinkya Rahane.

RRs were in spotlight during the auction as they ended up picking Jaydev Unadkat and Ben Stokes, who emerged as the costliest Indian and overseas players respectively. After which RRs had very little cash, and they had to settle even their hotel bill on credit card. Okay, just kidding. RRs also managed to rope in exciting BBL stars like D’Arcy Short, Jofra Archer, Ben Laughlin. They also have the ever explosive Jos Buttler. But before you get all carried away, mind you they also have Stuart Binny in their ranks.

Heinrich Klaasen is their chosen one as the replacement for Steve Smith.  Klaasen recently (during the shorter formats of India’s tour to South Africa) caught every one’s eye as  being the only player in the world with a red beard. With his explosive batting, Klaasen will be a great strength in RR’s dugout, which is where he will spend most of his time in this IPL as the likes of Stokes, Buttler Laughlin, Archer more or less pick themselves up in the team.

Another player to watch out for is Zaheer Khan Pakteen, who contrary to what his name suggests is actually an Afghan teen. Okay, he is 20 now. He is a left-arm googly bowler. Pak-teen, an Afghan, delivering Chinaman, looks like something conceived by the Department of Cringy Puns.

Local player Aryaman Vikram Birla, a left-handed opening bat, will bring to the table his rich and wealthy experience of being the son of rich and wealthy father Kumar Mangalam Birla. So stay tuned for headlines on the ‘Royals’ riff.

All told, RRs have the right mix of players to go all the way in the IPL, provided they have the money for the travel having spent it all at the auction table.