Raipur: After a sumptuous feast of traditional cricket, it's time again to return to the shortest format as leading players, including India skipper Mahendra Singh Dhoni, get ready to represent their respective franchises in the sixth edition of the Champions League T20, with the qualifying rounds starting here tomorrow.
While the tournament proper starts on September 17 with perennial favourites Chennai Super Kings pitted against reigning IPL champions Kolkata Knight Riders, the start of qualifying rounds will feature defending CLT20 champions Mumbai Indians taking on a very talented Lahore Lions team led by former national T20 captain Mohammed Hafeez.
While three IPL franchises KKR, CSK and Kings XI Punjab have directly qualified for the main rounds along with five other sides, Mumbai Indians, by virtue of finishing fourth in IPL will have to slog it out from tomorrow with the Lions (Pakistan), Northern Districts (New Zealand), Southern Express (Sri Lanka) at the Shaheed Veer Narayan Stadium.
Out of the four qualifiers, the top two will earn berth in the main round, which will comprise of 10 teams divided into two groups.
With the tournament being played in India (other venues are Mohali, Hyderabad and Bangalore), it is a foregone conclusion that the four home franchises have the best chance of winning the coveted title.
While CSK, under the able leadership of Dhoni, will be aiming to shrug off the disappointment of not reaching the IPL final with a solid show, Gautam Gambhir would like to quickly forget the England tour nightmare by aiming for a 'double' in the same calender -- winning both IPL and CLT20.
Among the Indian players, Dhoni (2010) and Rohit Sharma (2013) have the distinction of winning the IPL and CLT20 in the same year and Gambhir would like to join the elite club.
Some of the sheen have be taken off the tournament with exciting players like Rohit missing out due to multiple injuries (finger fracture and shoulder niggle) while South African speedster Morne Morkel is also out with a shoulder injury. Both MI and KKR will feel the absence of these two players.
But certainly not more than Southern Express of Sri Lanka, whose regular skipper Lasith Malinga expectedly decided to don Mumbai Indians colours while dashing opener Tillekaratne Dilshan pulled out due to family commitments.
The Northern Districts will also miss the services of Daniel Vettori although they have bowlers like Tim Southee and Trent Boult, who have experience of playing in the sub-continent. One of their most consistent batsmen in longer formats, Kane Williamson will get a chance to showcase his skills in the slam-bang version.
However, with players such as Pollard, Malinga, Lendl Simons and Corey Anderson at their disposal, and not to forget the seasoned Indian players like Harbhajan Singh and Ambati Raydu, MI are favourites to top the qualifiers.
Lahore Lions also have a strong chance to make it to the main round with some prominent internationals in their ranks, including talented but controversial opener Ahmed Shehzad and the immensely gifted Umar Akmal. Not to forget skipper Hafeez, who is a master in the shorter format.
Among the teams which have already qualified for the main round, none of the team has more all-round quality than CSK with Dhoni at the helm. With Ravindra Jadeja, Ravichandran Ashwin, Suresh Raina in their ranks and top quality overseas recruits like Dwayne Bravo, Dwayne Smith and Brendon McCullum, CSK are overwhelming favourites to win the title.
While their pace attack is a bit short on quality with old warhorse Ashish Nehra leading the pack with support from youngsters Mohit Sharma and Ishwar Pandey, the spinners Jadeja and Ashwin will have their task cut out.
A lot of eyes will be on Kings XI Punjab, who surprised one and all by reaching the final of the IPL with a low-profile team. With captain George Bailey and the dangerously destructive Glenn Maxwell in their line-up, other teams can ill-afford to take KXIP lightly.
Their will be the likes of Mitchell Johnson, David Miller, who would pose trouble for any opposition. Not to forget the assortment of domestic stars like Wriddhiman Saha and Manan Vohra.
The KKR side will depend a lot on starts from their flashy opener Robin Uthappa while there is no secret that mystery spinner Sunil Narine will be their strike bowler once again.
Gambhir will also expect significant contributions from Yusuf Pathan, hero of IPl final Manish Pandey, and the talented Suryakumar Yadav. The pace bowling will depend on Umesh Yadav, Pat Cummins and Ranganath Vinay Kumar.
Among the overseas teams, CPL champions Barbados Tridents will enter the tournament with a lot of confidence but will surely miss the services of their skipper Pollard and the dependable Shoaib Malik, who has opted to play for Hobart Hurricanes in the tournament.
The Cape Cobras from South Africa can pose challenge for big teams as they have T20 specialists like Jean-Paul Duminy in their team. Hashim Amla, Justin Ontong, Vernon Philander's presence make them a respectable unit in this format.
The Cape Cobras don't have a big name except for former South African keeper-batsman Morne van Wyk, who had also played for KKR during the 2009 IPL season.
The Perth Scorchers have T20 freelancer Yasir Arafat apart from young Ashton Agar and the oldest player in the tournament, chinaman bowler Brad Hogg, who is now 43 years old.