Rajkot: A top-heavy Gujarat Lions would look to better their debut season's success and aim for a winning start against two-time champions Kolkata Knight Riders in an Indian Premier League match in Rajkot on Friday.
Gujarat Lions were the table-toppers at the end of the league stage in the last IPL, but finished third after defeats in the two qualifiers against Royal Challengers Bangalore and Sunrisers Hyderabad.
But this time around, the Suresh Raina-led side would look to go one step up in only their second season of the IPL.
Gujarat Lions boast of a robust batting line-up and were the only team last year to score 70 or more in the powerplay.
Five of Gujarat Lions batsmen - Raina, Aaron Finch, Brendon McCullum, Dinesh Karthik and Dwayne Smith - were among runs in the last IPL. They also have the likes of Jason Roy and in-form Dinesh Karthik in their ranks.
Having defeated Kolkata Knight Riders in both home and away games in the previous season, Gujarat Lions also enjoy a psychological advantage over them.
On the bowling front, Gujarat Lions have an effective new-ball pair in Dhawal Kulkarni and Praveen Kumar.
Kulkarni's 14 wickets in the powerplay were the most for any bowler in 2016, and he combined well with Praveen.
But Gujarat Lions will miss two of their key players - Dwayne Bravo, who is out injured early on, and Ravindra Jadeja, who will sit out of the first few games after a long Test season.
Another factor which will be in the mind of the Lions going into IPL 2017 is how to win while batting first. Gujarat Lions had lost five out of six matches, including two qualifiers while batting first last year.
The Lions had released eight players, including Dale Steyn but the team's core group largely remained intact.
They have also made concerted investments in their bowling department by signing experienced IPL campaigners like Munaf Patel and Manpreet Gony, apart from hiring fresh recruits in Nathu Singh and Basil Thampi, the fast bowler from Kerala who has a reputation of hitting 140 kph.
Kolkata Knight Riders, on the other hand, are one of those teams which cricket fans always root for - be it for Sourav Ganguly or for their owner Shah Rukh Khan.
For the Knight Riders, revenge would be high on their mind when they take the field against the Lions on Friday.
The Kolkata outfit boast of the seasoned opening pair of captain Gautam Gambhir and Robin Uthappa, who can lay a solid foundation.
In Darren Bravo, Manish Pandey and Chris Lynn, the Knight Riders have batsmen known to intimidate the opponent. And in Yusuf Pathan and Suryakumar Yadav, they have attacking lower middle-order batsmen.
But the real strength lies in their spin arsenal, consisting of Shakib Al Hasan, Piyush Chawla, Chinaman Kuldeep Yadav and Sunil Narine.
With Umesh Yadav given a much-needed rest for the first two matches, the Knight Riders' pace attack will be spearheaded by Trent Boult in the company of Chris Woakes and Nathan Coulter-Nile. But they would definitely miss the services of all-rounder Andre Russell, who is serving a one-year ban for violating anti-doping whereabouts regulations.
Despite ending on the winning side on both occasions last season, Lions coach Brad Hodge is wary of Kolkata's potential.
"Kolkata Knight Riders is a very dangerous side having players like Gautam Gambhir, Robin Uthappa, Manish Pandey... all are very good players. They have got skillful bowlers in Sunil Narine, Kuldeep Yadav and Umesh Yadav," Hodge said. "I'm sure Kolkata Knight Riders will be looking to bounce back."
Kolkata Knight Riders: Gautam Gambhir (C), Darren Bravo, Trent Boult, Piyush Chawla, Nathan Coulter Nile, Colin De Grandhomme, Rishi Dhawan, Sayan Ghosh, Shakib Al Hasan, Sheldon Jackson, Ishank Jaggi, Kuldeep Yadav, Chris Woakes, Chris Lynn, Sunil Narine, Manish Pandey, Yusuf Pathan, Ankit Rajput, Suryakumar Yadav, Robin Uthappa, Umesh Yadav.
Gujarat Lions: Suresh Raina (C), Brendon McCullum, Dwayne Smith, Aaron Finch, Dinesh Karthik, Akshadeep Nath, Ishan Kishan, Manpreet Gony, Ravindra Jadeja, Shadab Jakati, Shivil Kaushik, Jason Roy, Dhawal Kulkarni, Praveen Kumar, Munaf Patel, Basil Thampi, Nathu Singh, Tejas Baroka, Shubham Agarwal, Shelly Shaurya, Andrew Tye and James Faulkner.
Published Date: Apr 07, 2017 10:37 pm | Updated Date: Apr 07, 2017 10:37 pm