Eoin Morgan is in his first season as full-time captain of an IPL team. When he takes the field on Sunday in Chennai, he will not just square off against David Warner's Sunrisers Hyderabad, but also against Trevor Bayliss, a close confidante who helped Morgan plot England's white-ball renaissance, which culminated in their 2019 World Cup win. Not to forget, Bayliss was the Knight Riders' coach between 2012 and 2015, when they won the IPL twice, before joining the Sunrisers.
The Kolkata Knight Riders haven't made the playoffs since 2018; their quest for the title stretches even further back to 2014. While many others would have chopped and changed, the core of the Knight Riders is still the same. Sunil Narine and Andre Russell are still as big, if not bigger, as the newer signings like Pat Cummins or Shakib Al Hasan, who has been brought back by the franchise after being part of two title wins in 2012 and 2014. Dinesh Karthik continues to be a key finisher, while they have Shubman Gill as potential retention material going forward.
Among the few teams to conduct yearlong camps, the Knight Riders have a well-oiled Indian group of players, both in batting and in bowling. Kamlesh Nagarkoti was injured for two successive seasons, but has been persisted with. Shivam Mavi has also been retained despite a history of injuries. Their latest project is Varun Chakravarthy, the mystery spinner who broke into the Indian team based on his IPL 2020 performances, but has been let down by fitness issues. Can he build on his previous season?
Over the last two seasons, the Knight Riders have somewhat been let down by their own strengths - the fluidity of the batting line-up has led to a hint of confusion. The three finishers in Morgan, Karthik and Russell have been shuffled around in the order. Maybe a bit more stability is the key for the team.
The Sunrisers are among the more industrious sides, one that bank on collective work. Warner has empowered individuals, given the youngsters a long rope, and has been patient in developing a solid group of players, who've all thrived under his leadership. T Natarajan and Sandeep Sharma are prime examples.
Are Sunrisers Hyderabad stronger than last season?
They will be boosted by Bhuvneshwar Kumar's return and Wriddhiman Saha's emergence as a T20 opener. They also have two hungry individuals in Manish Pandey and Vijay Shankar, keen to prove a point after overcoming injuries in order to regain their berth in the national squad.
Jonny Bairstow is in fine form, while they can also turn to the ever-reliable Kane Williamson if needed. Throw in the threat a Rashid Khan possesses and it makes for a heady cocktail that can trip up any opponent on a given day. The young group of Abdul Samad, Priyam Garg and Abhishek Sharma add to their batting riches.
There are no clear favourites for this one. Just the promise of two solid teams, with very different philosophies and approaches, going head to head with the aim of starting on the right foot.
In the news
The match will test Warner's fitness. Last month, Warner conceded that he had rushed back during the Test series against India following the groin injury he had suffered during the ODIs in December. Warner made himself available for the last two Tests in Sydney and Brisbane, when he was clearly still hampered by the injury. Another lengthy rehab was followed by an outing for New South Wales before he got on the plane to India for the IPL.
This also marks Shakib's return to the IPL, and to the Knight Riders. Last season, he was far away from the action as he was serving an ICC ban, and he starts out this time - if he gets in the XI - against the team he was with till before the suspension. His presence in the IPL this time hasn't been uneventful either, as he opted for the Knight Riders gig over matches for Bangladesh, and the process was not without confusion.
Sunrisers Hyderabad:1 David Warner (capt), 2 Jonny Bairstow (wk), 3 Manish Pandey, 4 Kane Williamson, 5 Vijay Shankar/Abhishek Sharma, 6 Kedar Jadhav, 7 Abdul Samad, 8 Rashid Khan, 9 Bhuvneshwar Kumar, 10 Sandeep Sharma, 11 T Natarajan
Harbhajan Singh has played much of his IPL cricket recently at Chepauk for the Chennai Super Kings. Friday's opener at the venue threw up a slow black-soil-based surface that gripped and spun. Singh had been used regularly with the new ball by MS Dhoni, particularly against the left-handers. With Warner likely to open, there's a case for Morgan to turn to Harbhajan with the new ball too. There's good reason, too. The senior offspinner has dismissed Warner four times in the IPL.
At IPL 2020, Warner struck at 133 in the powerplay, considerably slower than his overall record. While there may be a temptation to play Saha, who enhanced his reputation as an opener in IPL 2020, it could potentially be advantageous to open with the in-form Bairstow. The England wicketkeeper has struck for the Sunrisers at 142, and he's in red-hot form too, having just been named Player of the Series during the ODI series against India.
Stats that matter
The Sunrisers haven't won in three attempts in Chennai. The Knight Riders haven't fared any better, losing seven out of their nine games here. One of those wins, however, gave them their maiden IPL crown in 2012.
Warner's 1240 runs in 28 innings is the second-most after KL Rahul since IPL 2019. He needs 88 more against the Knight Riders to become the first batsman to score 1000 runs against an IPL opponent.