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INDIAN PULSATING LEAGUE

The return of Chennai Super Kings, Rajasthan Royals’ splurge at the auction and Shami’s personal problems will make the IPL all the more entertaining

Love me or hate me, but I’m here to entertain you. That’s what Mahendra Singh Dhoni is for his fans.

The big boys in Indian Premier League are back after a two-year pause. Be it Chennai Super Kings (CSK) or Rajasthan Royals (RR), it seems the two-year ban has hardly done any harm to their popularity. No team enjoys as much fanfare and adulation in the IPL like the Super Kings do. And yet no team divides opinion like they do.

CSK, it seems, has become like Manchester United of English football in recent years. Like United, CSK has a massive following. Both teams tasted tremendous success when they were at their peak. And now, both are trying to return to the top spot after some hiccups.

Dhoni has comfortably taken up his position as undisputed king of the Chennai outfit, while Ajinkya Rahane’s stepping in for disgraced Steve Smith has only made Royals more popular amongst Indian fans.

The palpable angst with majority of cricket fans still looking at CSK through that spot-fixing taint cannot be ignored. But the last few practice sessions at Chepauk (home of CSK) prove how much this team means for its local fans. Yellow fever has gripped this part of the world again.

CSK’s return could well be bad news for Mumbai Indians, who have had a great run in Dhoni team’s absence. The two champion teams will be resuming their battle for supremacy by kicking off the tournament on April 7.

CSK has carefully chalked out its return to the auction table. Dhoni’s first choice playing eleven could well have majority of players in their 30s, something unthinkable for most other teams. The team management has also ensured that the core group stays intact. Alongside Dhoni, Ravindra Jadeja, Dwayne Bravo, Suresh Raina and Faf du Plessis have returned to wear yellow jerseys. Veterans like Harbhajan Singh and Ambati Raydu have been roped in, but they face a great challenge to adapt to the needs of this champion team.

The fans are, however, going to miss local hero Ravichandran Ashwin this time around. The team has invested in young N Jagadeesan while Murali Vijay looks to be in a good touch. The likes of Brendon McCullum and Dwayne Smith are certainly be missed at the top while the experience of Ashish Nehra and Michael Hussey would be missed at crunch moments.

Lungi Ngidi will give some new ideas to a team otherwise dominated by old horses.

Dhoni’s own batting position has been a point of debate in recent times for Team India. He has featured only once at No. 4 in 19 innings in 50-overs cricket since Champions Trophy last June, and has been more of a late order batsman at No. 6 and No. 7. In the last few T20s, too, he has been walking in at No. 6.

But the hints by coach Stephen Fleming are enough to suggest that Dhoni has decided to promote himself to No. 4 position this season.

Big buys for Royals

On the other hand are the winners of the inaugural IPL.

To their credit, they have grabbed all attention by assembling such a high-profile squad for the first time. Having been known for their conservative approach when it came to spending money, Royals this time around have made some most expensive buys like England’s Ben Stokes (Rs 12.5 crore) and Jaydev Unadkat (Rs 11.5 crore).

Royals strategy throughout the auctions remained to pick proven performers for the shortest format of the game. That’s why Australian Big Bash boys D’Arcy Short and Jofra Archer got in without any debate. Along with Rahane, Rahul Tripathi and Sanju Samson are the other Indian batsmen in the squad. K Gowtham and Shreyas Gopal are taken for their proven domestic record in the spin department.

The biggest upset for Royals’ plan was the ban on its skipper Steve Smith in the wake of recent ball-tampering controversy. And mind you, Smith was the only player they opted to retain from last season’s IPL. His replacement, Heinrich Klaasen of South Africa, may well be the right choice given his prowess against Indian spinners in the recent tour.

Royals have a luxury to be flexible with batting plans. Rahane can open with Tripathi or Samson in normal course. And in case team demands more explosiveness at the top, then England’s Jos Butter or Short could well be asked to step up.

Sex, money & Shami

Last but not the least would be the presence of Indian pacer Mohammad Shami after his much publicised marital dispute with wife Hasin Jahan.

Now that he is back on ground after that ugly spat with wife, where she accused him of match-fixing apart from domestic violence, Shami would be eager to attract more attention for his bowling than for off-field activities.

At one point of time, it seemed that Shami is going to miss this year’s IPL after BCCI asked its anti-corruption unit to probe charges of fixing against the pacer. The Indian cricket board also withheld Shami’s contract for a fortnight before clearing him of all the allegations attached to his cricketing life.

Shami is now back at the Ferozeshah Kotla ground and busy getting his match fitness back. He still has band-aid on his head, indicating that the injury occurred from car accident is still to be healed completely.

The biggest relief for Shami has been the support of his new Delhi Daredevils skipper Gautam Gambhir, whose praise for his bowling after one of the practice sessions has infused a lot of confidence back into this 28-year-old speedster.

He, however, will continue to face the inquiry by Kolkata police into the allegations of adultery and domestic violence hurled by Jahan. Not forgetting that Shami has been charged under some serious sections of the Indian Penal Code, including attempt to murder, which is a non-bailable offence.