When Kolkata Knight Riders and Royal Challengers Bangalore walk out on Sunday, both sides will be conspicuously lacking a familiar left-handed opener. Royal Challengers let go of Chris Gayle, perhaps their biggest match-winner ever, ahead of the January auction, and Knight Riders did the same with Gautam Gambhir, their captain for seven seasons in which they won two titles.
If these events show us anything, it's how unpredictable this league, and by extension the format, can be. Just in 2016, Virat Kohli, the Royal Challengers captain, called out Sarfaraz Khan for his fielding and fitness. And yet, he was one of three players retained, alongside AB de Villiers and Kohli himself. This is a slightly different RCB line-up. After falling flat in 2017, when they finished last, they seem to have made amends with smart buys aimed at remedying their over-reliance on the top order. They will also be served well by domestic talents who have successfully transitioned to international cricket, such as Yuzvendra Chahal.
Knight Riders have endured three seasons without a trophy, and have sought to address that by appointing a new captain in Dinesh Karthik, who is in the middle of a late career renaissance of sorts. Karthik, who has a wealth of leadership experience in domestic cricket, recently earned a recall to the Indian side and responded by playing probably the defining innings of his career: all signs of a man high on confidence and at peace with his game. Not a bad way to start.
In the news
Mitchell Starc has been ruled out of the tournament with a tibial bone stress fracture in his right leg, and the Knight Riders coach Jacques Kallis has pinned his faith on Tom Curran, the bowling allrounder from England, to fill in ably. There were also doubts surrounding Chris Lynn and Andre Russell, who pulled out of the PSL due to injuries, and Sunil Narine, who was reported for a suspect action in the same tournament. But the Knight Riders management has assured fans that all three will be available for the opener.
Nathan Coulter-Nile, who was Knight Riders' second-highest wicket-taker last season, will miss the opportunity of taking on his former franchise. As he has continues to recover from a back stress fracture, Coulter-Nile has been withdrawn from the Royal Challengers squad and replaced by Corey Anderson.
The likely XIs
Kolkata Knight Riders: 1 Chris Lynn, 2 Shubman Gill, 3 Robin Uthappa, 4 Dinesh Karthik (capt, wk), 5 Nitish Rana, 6 Andre Russell, 7 Piyush Chawla, 8 Sunil Narine, 9 Tom Curran, 10 Kuldeep Yadav, 11 Shivam Mavi/Kamlesh Nagarkoti
Royal Challengers Bangalore: 1 Brendon McCullum/Quinton de Kock, 2 Parthiv Patel (wk), 3 Virat Kohli (capt), 4 AB de Villiers, 5 Sarfaraz Khan, 6 Colin de Grandhomme, 7 Washington Sundar, 8 Tim Southee, 9 Umesh Yadav, 10 Yuzvendra Chahal, 11 Navdeep Saini
Dinesh Karthik would do well to unleash Piyush Chawla at the Royal Challengers line-up. De Villiers has an appalling record against the legspinner in IPL: 43 runs in eight innings at a strike rate of 97.7, while being dismissed four times. McCullum fares even worse, averaging 8.00 and striking at 80 while also being dismissed four times in eight innings. That's two of the opposition's most dangerous batsmen.
Stats that matter
Sixteen out of 26 matches at the Eden Gardens in T20Is and IPL since 2015 have been won by the chasing team: a strong case for bowling first.
Sunil Narine has increasingly proven his utility as a batsman in recent years. His effectiveness shoots up significantly when he's facing spin. Since IPL 2015, Narine has averaged 17.2 against pace and struck at 145.8. Against spin, the corresponding numbers are 29.5 and 226.9.
Both teams are relatively evenly matched at the Eden Gardens. In their five most recent meetings at this venue, Knight Riders hold a marginal 3-2 edge. However, Knight Riders have won all their three matches batting first, while RCB have chased down totals for both their victories.
While Dinesh Karthik is solid in the middle overs and a blazing finisher, he has trouble getting going in the Powerplay. Since the 2015 IPL, Karthik has batted 16 times in the first six overs and faced 63 deliveries for a strike rate of 92.1.
If Knight Riders win on Sunday, they will tie Chennai Super Kings for 41 home victories - the second-highest among all IPL teams.
RCB: The perennial bridesmaids
After finishing last in 2017, Virat Kohli has lots of new talent and a formidable coaching staff to work with in a bid to win a maiden IPL title for RCB
First, the obvious choices: Virat Kohli and AB de Villiers. You'd have to be brave and perhaps foolish to leave either out.
Kuldeep Yadav and Yuzvendra Chahal are coming off a bumper limited-overs tour of South Africa. They took 33 wickets between them in six matches and averaged 13.88 and 16.37 respectively. Royal Challengers struggled at the death in the last IPL, losing an average of three wickets per innings in the last five overs, and scoring at just 8.64 per over. Kuldeep was the most successful spinner at the death last year, taking seven wickets and conceding a boundary once every 6.67 deliveries.
"Unfortunately Starc got injured but we have got a replacement in [Tom] Curran. We look forward to some exciting stuff from Tom who should stand up and play a big role in the absence of Mitchell."
Knight Riders coach Jacques Kallis has high hopes from the young England quick