Dogged Auckland have potential to surprise
Auckland Aces may be one of the smallest fish in the Champions League T20 and the side that has traveled the furthest to compete, but as Sialkot and Hampshire discovered in the qualifiers, their bite can be just as fearsome as that of the bigger predators around. Auckland had failed to qualify for the Champions League main event in 2011, but have turned the disappointment of that failure into determination. They arrived in South Africa two weeks before the qualifying round to acclimatise and prepare after a wet New Zealand winter, and two emphatic victories first up suggests the extra investment was a worthwhile one.
Auckland have the advantage of not having to surrender any of their best players to the IPL sides, and the explosive top order that was the bedrock of their HRV Cup success has already shown glimpses of form in South Africa. In Martin Guptill and Azhar Mahmood, Auckland have two of the more under-rated strikers of the ball, and although Lou Vincent only played a limited role in the HRV Cup because of injury, he has been a vital cog in the Auckland machine for years. Colin Munro, Anaru Kitchen and Colin de Grandhomme also pack plenty of firepower through the middle, with de Grandhomme having been elevated to the international Twenty20 side after he showcased a zest for finishing powerfully in the domestic competition.
The bowling is spearheaded by Kyle Mills, and though it is not an attack that will daunt their Champions League opposition, it has the variety to expose an array of flaws. Left armer Michael Bates made a name for himself as a death-bowling specialist, but proved penetrative at the top of the innings in the last HRV cup, while Mills and Andre Adams have enough experience between them to defuse most crises. Azhar Mahmood is another steady seam option, and Ronnie Hira provides miserly left-arm spin as well. Like de Grandhomme, both Bates and Hira also earned international call-ups on the back of their HRV Cup performances. The bowling is supported superlatively in the field, and Auckland can claim to be among the best domestic fielding sides in the world.
How they qualified
Auckland won eight of the ten matches they played in the HRV Cup, and were effectively frontrunners for the entire competition. They had lost their last round-robin game to Canterbury, but regrouped beautifully to bury the same team by 44 runs in a one-sided final.
Martin Guptill was the HRV Cup's top runscorer, and he carried that form into New Zealand's home summer, in which he made five international fifties in a row. Brutal down the ground and almost as quick to dispatch short bowling, Auckland will almost invariably be competitive when he has a good day. He does tend to fall over to the offside, making him a candidate for LBWs on seaming pitches, but Auckland will expect him to overcome that weakness and provide the fillips they have grown accustomed to from him at the beginning of the innings.
Ronnie Hira's forte is his parsimony, but he topped the wicket-taker's list in the HRV Cup with 14 scalps - most of which came when batsmen looked to attack him. He can also sustain a good strike rate over short bursts, and is one of the best fielders in a side littered with quick movers.
Auckland's batsmen have flourished against pace, but with precious little high quality spin going around in New Zealand's domestic circuit, oppositions may want to test them with slow bowling early in their innings. The middle order in particular is limited in its range of strokes, and if spinners can force the batsmen to hit to less-favoured parts of the ground, they may expose flaws in their techniques.
Andrew Fernando is ESPNcricinfo's correspondent in Sri Lanka