Stakes are so high in Indian cricket that even before the christening of their respective team names, Indian Premier League's two new franchises – Pune and Rajkot – were pitted against each other in the player draft on Tuesday.
Which franchise came out a winner is tough to judge considering the cricketing talent that went either way. The winning pedigree that each side acquired in the draft was mind blogging, to say the least. If there is a Mahendra Singh Dhoni – possibly the most decorated of any existing cricketers in the limited overs format, then there is a Steven Smith – the new sensation in cricket, with both brain and brawn.
Then, there are the likes of Brendon McCullum, Dwayne Bravo, James Faulkner and the Indian quartet of Suresh Raina, Ajinkya Rahane, Ravindra Jadeja and Ravichandran Ashwin. Yes, we are talking about two teams only. Six more teams lay wait with a host of cricketing superstars for the next edition of IPL.
When the Pune-based franchise successfully won the right to pick the first player, it seemed like Sanjiv Goenka's New Rising got the upper hand. Such is the aura which MS Dhoni carries, everyone was content with a cursory look. But when the draft ended, it was Intex's Rajkot which seemed to have the last laugh, at least on paper.
The obvious reason is, MS Dhoni – who is all but certain to lead the Pune franchise – will be deprived of his trusted lieutenants in Suresh Raina, Ravindra Jadeja, Dwayne Bravo and Brendon McCullum. These are the players, who have won so many games for Dhoni's erstwhile Chennai Super Kings.
How important these players were in the overall of scheme of the now suspended CSK team, can be judged from the fact that they have formed the core of the team from 2012. Raina had been with the franchise from it's inception, Bravo arrived from Mumbai Indians in 2011 and soon became Dhoni's weapon of choice, while McCullum and Jadeja joined the champions in 2012, which further strengthened an already strong team.
No doubt, Dhoni still has Ravichandran Ashwin and Faf du Plessis from the Chennai stable; and Ajinkya Rahane and Steven Smith from the Rajasthan Royals. But by the mere head-to-head comparison, Dhoni started on the losing front. It looks like a heavyweight vs lightweight battle.
There's always a scope to improve, but replacing the talents of the above mentioned four stars will be a tough task. And not to discount the fact that other existing six franchises will also join the fray when the main auction happens in February.
Coming to the individual repertoire – Raina is the highest run-getter in IPL, while the West Indian rebel Bravo is CSK's most successful wicket-taker, besides being one of the most dangerous hitters in slog overs. And both are live-wires in the field, taking improbable catches and affecting run-outs to bail out their team from many awkward situations.
Add the duo of McCullum – an opener par excellence, and Faulkner – a brutal finisher, you already have a batting line-up capable to creating havoc. Then there is Jadeja, the shrewd Indian spinner who also bats rather well in Indian conditions.
In contrast, Dhoni will have the services of three extremely talented batsmen – Rahane, Smith and du Plessis - and Ashwin. The Indian spinner, who toyed with South African batsmen in the recently concluded Freedom Series, is any day a better bowler than Jadeja.
But in the whirlwind world of T20, talent alone doesn't translate into runs and wickets. In this slam-bang version of gentleman's game, street-smart practitioners always seem to succeed.
Here, the Rajkot player can be as effective as any other champion, including Ashwin, when it comes to T20 cricket.
And the presence of a proven leader like McCullum, who led the Kiwis to their first ever 50-over World Cup final in January, augurs well for a new team. If given the captaincy responsibilities, he will have the able support of Raina, who has indeed matured as a fine man with a lot of cricketing acumen.
In this regard, MS Dhoni's reputation and no doubt, the leadership skills should be given weightage. But in new set-ups, leading new teams, everyone starts from scratch.
Yes, both teams will be reinforced during the auction, but going by the first five picks - which should form the core of their respective teams - Rajkot won the first battle.
Footnote: Former champions CSK and RR were served with a two-year suspension on July 14 by a Supreme Court-appointed panel after their officials were found guilty of illegally betting on games. This many believed was the first step to cleaning up the cash-rich T20 league.
To fill up the two vacant spots left due to suspension, the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) put in place a reverse bidding process. Pune and Rajkot acquired the two new franchises by placing lowest bids of all the contenders, and thus joined the IPL bandwagon, albeit for two years only.