At the end of my last post, I began to ponder which team I'd be supporting in the second season of the Indian Premier League - a bizarre 8-franchise event pitching together teams composed of the world's best current players, the cream of India's up-and-coming crop and some from the 'Seniors' Tour'. As it enters the second of its five weeks in South Africa - complete with cheerleaders, mid-innings commercial breaks and the venomous (and hugely popular) Fake IPL Player blog (supposedly the work of a reserve for the Kolkata Knight Riders) - I am still none the wiser.
I was initially quite excited at the prospect of watching Kevin Pietersen turn around the fortunes of Bangalore Royal Challengers, who came 7th of the 8 teams last year and were widely ridiculed for picking a 'Test team', with a batting line-up including Rahul 'The Wall' Dravid and Jacques 'What's my average now?' Kallis. Not only was I very sorry that Pietersen was not England's captain for longer (I always fancied he could have emulated Viv Richards as a captain as well as a batsman), but I've also long felt that the best Test cricketers adapt their games best to the shorter formats - Dravid was one of the leading run-scorers last year and is currently 6th in the list this year. The problems with supporting the Challengers, though, are that Pietersen will be returning to England soon and I am unable to do anything other than enjoy the sight of Jacques Kallis' face as his bowling is hit around the park. They're also now bottom of the table.
Besides, the 'Royal Challengers' sobriquet is pretty poor really. In fact, half the teams have 'Royal' or 'Kings' as part of their name - a bit of a dearth of creativity in the marketing department, surely? By the 'name criterion', the Kolkata 'Knight Riders' are also a non-starter, I'm afraid, much as I like Chris Gayle and enjoy as I do the row brewing between John Buchanan and anyone who plays for him. If they'd been the 'Night Riders', I might have been intrigued..
The Delhi Daredevils are the only team to manage a vaguely decent name - hitting the jackpot (comparatively speaking) by being alliterative and appropriate to Twenty20 - and they seem to have assembled a team made for this format: Gambhir, Sehwag, De Villiers (scorer of the first century in this year's competition) and Dilshan are four of the most in-form batsmen in the world (in all formats), while Daniel Vettori is the world's best Twenty20 bowler and a fine captain. They have Owais Shah and Paul Collingwood in reserve, not to mention Glenn McGrath and Twenty20 sensation, David Warner. All this probably makes them the favourites to win the competition, which might well lose them my support, I'm afraid...
Which brings me nicely on to the underdog appeal of the Rajasthan Royals, or Team Warne, who won last year on a shoe-string budget (well, it's all relative - see here for a look at who was worth the spend last year). After losing Shane Watson, the Man of the Tournament last time, and Sohail Tanvir, its leading bowler, to the Pakistan-Australia series in Dubai and Abu Dhabi, things aren't going so well, with the Graeme Smith-led batting yet to fire (and Swapnil Asnodkar a shadow of last year's buccaneer). Dimitri Mascarenhas is doing marginally better than Warne with the ball (as things stand), but both have been trumped by the 18 year-old Indian left-armer, Kamran Khan, until recently, like me nowadays, predominantly playing tennis-ball cricket. Plucked from nowhere, he epitomises Rajasthan's lure - I wonder, though, whether liking them is a sign of my inner curmudgeon failing to embrace the IPL on its own terms, sticking two fingers up to its big-spending fantasy team ideal (in the first season, Rajasthan were actually penalised for not spending enough!).
As such, I'm going to need to look further afield and avoid curmudgeonliness in that respect. I'm not charitable enough, though, to overlook Chennai Super Kings signing Matthew Hayden. The Deccan Chargers have Adam Gilchrist and Herschelle Gibbs as their scintillating opening pair and are currently leading the way, after finishing bottom last year. Pragyan Ojha, an Indian slow left-armer, is proving one of the bowlers of the tournament so far, and Fidel Edwards' slingy action is highly effective in the death overs.
But Lasith Malinga, playing for the Mumbai Indians, is a more exciting slinger than Edwards and has been thrillingly unplayable thus far. And you can't beat the old masters, Jayasuriya and Tendulkar, for an opening pair. Sentiment and Sri Lankan exuberance, then, might just swing me Mumbai's way.
I've not quite persuaded myself yet - I'm still rooting for Rajasthan in their current run-chase against Delhi - but I'm certainly excited at the feast of cricket on offer. Hopefully, the more I watch, the less confused I'll be - I'll keep you posted...