Knight Riders look to raise the bar
The last time Kolkata Knight Riders were in South Africa was during their disastrous IPL 2009 campaign when they finished at the bottom of the table. Since then, they went for a multi-million dollar overhaul and changed the entire machinery starting with their captain. Out went an old, weary and confused lot and in came a leaner, more efficient and cohesive Knight Riders version 2 and the change had an immediate effect.
The Champions League will be a different beast though. Knight Riders have the tough task of leading the IPL flag in markedly different conditions. The other challenge for the team will be to hit the ground running in the two-week long tournament, as their won't be many chances to make a comeback after a bad start.
So, to avoid all that good work between 2009 and this trip, Knight Riders will need their leading lights to show the way. That includes the captain Gautam Gambhir, Jacques Kallis, Brett Lee and Sunil Narine, who played a key role in his team's IPL triumph, and the only remnant of the 2009 trip, Brendon McCullum.
Though Gambhir was the chief aggressor and one of the leading run-getters in IPL this year - he scored 590 runs at a strike rate of 143.55 - his current form could be a concern. Therefore, the responsibility of leading a talented, but young, batting brigade will rest on McCullum and Kallis. The South African pitches will also suit their games.
Knight Riders' bowling fortunes will still largely depend on Narine - the second highest wicket-taker in IPL 2012. But their support cast was impressive as well. L Balaji's performance this year didn't escape the eyes of the national team selectors, while Rajat Bhatia's canny medium-pace fetched him 13 wickets. The team also includes two of the world's best allrounders in Kallis and Shakib Al Hasan.
The tournament is also an opportunity for some Indian players - like Manoj Tiwary and Yusuf Pathan - to impress the new national selection panel. Tiwary has waited for a year with his foot in the door and a good showing in South Africa could add weight to his CV. For Yusuf, a performance true to his reputation could bring him back in the reckoning for an India limited-overs spot.
How they qualified
Knight Riders are the current IPL champions. After coming second to Delhi Daredevils in the league stage by one point, Knight Riders beat Daredevils in the first playoff to qualify for their maiden final, in Chennai. There, they beat Super Kings by five wickets.
Gautam Gambhir has instilled aggression into the team with his captaincy. His batting has reaped the benefit of his approach, as he rose from being an accumulator to destroyer. In this year's IPL, Gambhir scored six half-centuries, slammed 17 sixes and collected 64 boundaries - well ahead of the next batsman in the team. Some of these runs came on the slow Kolkata track on which others found it hard to get going. Despite his recent form in international cricket, his resilience will still hold the key for Knight Riders.
Just when Chennai Super Kings had thought they were on track for another IPL title, Manvinder Bisla proved to be the jack-in-the-box with a brutal and nerveless 48-ball 89 that won the Knight Riders their first IPL title. That innings represented 42% of Bisla's batting contribution in the tournament, but it also showcased his talent as he easily outscored Kallis at the other end.
Gambhir was inspiring with his batting earlier this year and fortunate to have ideal bowlers for the tired, slow and low pitches in India. However, all those plans will need a rejig on fresher pitches that retain some moisture. Gambhir, the captain, could be susceptible to the bounce himself and the movement, and his failure could drag the team along.
Devashish Fuloria is a sub-editor with ESPNcricinfo