2014 IPL winners Kolkata Knight Riders kick off their title defence by taking on another former champions Mumbai Indians in the opening match of IPL 8 at the Eden Gardens in Kolkata on Wednesday, April 8. While playing at home will give Kolkata better crowd support, Mumbai are surely going to be no pushovers, and Kolkata will have to be on top of their game to overcome the challenge being presented by Mumbai. With both teams having star performers, neither side can claim to possess the upper hand. For the fans, they would only hope that the weather doesn't play spoilsport in the match, as heavy rain has been predicted on Wednesday.
Shifting focus back to the on-field action, Kolkata would be pleased with the fact that Sunil Narine will be available for selection from the very first game as his action has been cleared. Narine has been one of Kolkata's biggest assets in the last few seasons, and has played a stellar role in the team's victorious campaigns. However, the mystery spinner will be coming out with a remodelled action, and it would be interesting to observe whether it affects his potency. Another factor that will be closely looked at is whether the off-field developments have had an impact on Narine's confidence.
The West Indian apart, KKR have a few other match-winners in their arsenal. Robin Uthappa is certainly one at the top of the order. He was in superb form in IPL 7, and enjoyed a fantastic Ranji season with Karnataka. Uthappa will be keen to continue the same. His opening partner and skipper Gautam Gambhir will also be crucial to the team's fortunes. He too scored plenty of runs last season, culminating in a championship-clinching effort. In Shakib Al Hasan, they have the number one all-rounder in world cricket. Looking at the bowling choices, Morne Morkel will be the key, along with Umesh Yadav, who enjoyed a fantastic World Cup.
When it comes to star players, Mumbai Indians can match Kolkata player to player. Their skipper Rohit Sharma is among the most dangerous hitters of the cricket ball. He will be returning to the venue where he slammed that famous 264 against Sri Lanka in an ODI. Kieron Pollard is another danger batsman in their batting line-up. The snub for the World Cup would have hurt him without doubt, and he will thus be keen to prove a point. The inclusion of big-hitting Aaron Finch will only strengthen the batting order, which will be further bolstered by the presence of Corey Anderson and Ambati Rayudu.
Like always, Mumbai's bowling responsibilities will be headed by the cunning Lasith Malinga. He did not have a highly impressive World Cup, and age is perhaps catching up with him. But, there is no reason why he cannot prove dangerous in the IPL as he only needs to send down four overs. The experience of Harbhajan Singh is another factor that could determine Mumbai's fate in the game. When not picking up wickets, he is mostly economical, and when he does get wickets, they come in a heap. Josh Hazelwood could come in handy if selected, and there are also experienced hands like Pragyan Ojha and R. Vinay Kumar around.
--By A Cricket Analyst