Chennai Super Kings again the team to beat
Big PictureChennai Super Kings are the only team to make it to the semi-final stage - or the equivalent - of every IPL tournament so far. Twice, including in the previous season, they've finished runners-up. In 2010 and 2011, they won.
Like most IPL teams, they've had their share of controversy, not the least of it being claims of conflict of interest - BCCI president N Srinivasan also manages India Cements, the franchise's owners. However, the on-field success has so far managed to keep the spotlight on the positives. This time, though, Super Kings face what is possibly their biggest off-field issue yet: that of the exclusion of Sri Lankan players from the games in Chennai, following political tensions. The other franchises, whose Sri Lankans play more central roles in the team, have voiced fears that this gives Super Kings an unfair advantage in their home games, while some have criticised the IPL's softness in not moving the matches away from Chennai altogether. This means Super Kings will need a near-perfect showing to drag the headlines in the right direction, but even another triumph might leave a bad aftertaste.
Back to the actual cricket then. Apart from being the IPL's most successful franchise, Super Kings have also been the tournament's most settled team. Few changes had been made to the squad over five seasons, with the batting and spin-bowling departments being their customary powerhouses. This year, though, the obvious focus is on bolstering the pace bowling, and the squad sports several new faces as a result. Australia's Dirk Nannes and Ben Laughlin, West Indies' Jason Holder and South Africa's Chris Morris - for whom Super Kings paid US$625,000, a whopping 31 times his base price - were snapped up in February's auction. Later, they signed Imtiaz Ahmed, Ankit Rajpoot, Mohit Sharma and Ronit More, domestic pacers who are all coming off solid Ranji Trophy performances. Given the nature of the Chepauk track though - which was on ample display during the recent India-Australia Test - how much of an impact this move will have is as yet unclear.
Key playersWith Super Kings turning all that attention to their seam-bowling, it's clear that they believe R Ashwin has the spin front well covered, with Ravindra Jadeja backing him up. Ashwin has the numbers, in the IPL and otherwise, to back up that notion. Currently India's primary spinner, he has 49 IPL wickets for Super Kings - second only to Albie Morkel, who has played 21 more games. More importantly, at the end of the 2012 season, Ashwin boasted of an economy rate of just over six, the best among all Super Kings bowlers.
If Super Kings look to Ashwin with the ball, they look first and foremost to MS Dhoni and Suresh Raina with the bat. In the absence of the injured Faf du Plessis, the now-retired and ever-dependable Michael Hussey will partner M Vijay (who comes in high on confidence after feasting on Australia's bowlers) at the top, leaving Raina and Dhoni in charge of finishing duties. That was an area Super Kings struggled in during the round-robin stage in 2012, often lacking the late surge. It is an area Raina and Dhoni are more than capable of improving upon.
Big name inDirk Nannes: He currently sits at No. 2 on the overall Twenty20 wickets charts, behind South African Alfonso Thomas. Despite his extensive T20 experience, he warmed the bench all through IPL 2012 for Royal Challengers Bangalore. He was bought by Super Kings at the auction for US$600,000, and is likely to compete with fellow Australian quick Ben Hilfenhaus for the fourth foreign-player's spot in their line-up.
Big name outDoug Bollinger: The Australia seamer was one of four overseas players released by Super Kings in the lead-up to IPL 2013, alongside George Bailey, Scott Styris and Suraj Randiv. Bollinger had galvanised Super Kings' campaign in 2010, when he arrived halfway through the tournament. Since then, he had been the team's principal fast-bowling new-ball option, claiming 37 wickets at 18.72. That is, until Hilfenhaus arrived in similar fashion halfway through last year's event.
Below the radarBaba Aparajith: The eighteen-year-old allrounder from Tamil Nadu did not have a Ranji Trophy season that stood out. Where he did make his mark, though, was the Under-19 World Cup last year. A top-order batsman who can bowl handy offspin and a lively fielder, Aparajith knocked off Man-of-the-Match awards in the World Cup quarter-final and semi-final with all-round contributions. Considering Super Kings' affinity for allrounders, he should fit into their scheme of things quite well.
AvailabilitySuper Kings will be without Faf du Plessis for at least the first month of the IPL, as he recovers from a back injury. Allrounders Albie Morkel and Chris Morris are doubtful for the first two games due to South African domestic commitments. The squad includes two Sri Lankans: seamer Nuwan Kulasekara and offspinner Akila Dananjaya. Given the circumstances, whether they will travel to India at all is as yet unclear. None of Super Kings' players have international commitments during the course of the IPL.
Nikita Bastian is a sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo