Mumbai Indians to take on Knight Riders at the resplendent Zayed stadium

They are perched right on the rhino’s horn, if one compares the Arabian peninsula to the thick-skinned vegetarian tonner’s head. In cricketing terms, they may be dry docks, but the dustbowls of Dubai, Sharjah and Abu Dhabi will set off the sport’s showpiece when the Indian Premier League’s (IPL) seventh season gets underway on Wednesday evening.

The venue for the opening match between the Mumbai Indians (MI) and Kolkata Knight Riders (KKR) at Abu Dhabi — the Zayed cricket stadium — however provides refreshing relief from popular perception, resplendent in green, two grassy slopes adorning the two stands on either side of the wicket.

Captains of each of the squads smile from huge hoardings alongside the Dubai-Abu Dhabi highway, the all-encompassing blue in the sign-boards contrasting with the palm trees and scrub, if not the scorching sands in the distance.

High temperatures

Well before noon on Tuesday, the temperature had touched 40 degrees but that hasn’t deterred fans from flocking to the games, with the first four and the opening double-header already sold out. “It’s quite warm,” said Trevor Bayliss after the nets session. “The boys are in good form and ready to go.”

To take on the reigning champion, the KKR coach said, “We have a number of quality options but importantly the 11 guys we pick must play well on the day.”

On the difference between playing the IPL in India and elsewhere, he said, “There are not so many people to greet you at the ground and hotel but the guys are enjoying the quieter lifestyle.

“It’ll be good to leave the UAE with a number of wins under our belt but it’s a competition in which nobody knows what will happen,” he mused.

On KKR’s weakness — a brittle middle order — Bayliss said, “We believe we have a stronger middle order than last year with Manish Pandey and Shakib [Al Hasan] in the side.

“We have enough depth in that middle order. Chawla [Piyush] can bat too. We have a long batting line up. Yusuf Pathan has played the role of finisher quite well on a number of occasions too,” the mentor of many successful teams said.

Intense captain

On whether Gautam Gambhir was too intense, he said the captain led by example and stood up for all his players, which gave them confidence that he was backing them.

On whether Jacques Kallis was a good investment, now that he was not playing T20 for South Africa, Bayliss said, “Jacques has got a wonderful record. If anyone wants to write him off, then do it at your own peril,” he cautioned.

“I’ll be surprised if he doesn’t do well in this tournament.” On how long he’d be associated with the IPL what with the English team wanting him, he said he was not sure.

“I’m happy with what I’m doing. KKR is a family oriented franchise and a good thing,” he concluded.

MI coach John Wright felt there was an air of expectancy with everyone well organised and wanting to get started.

The former Indian coach said there was a bit of grass on the wicket, which could get a little spongy.

While a winning start would be welcome, there was a lot of pressure in this competition but his side’s record against KKR was a good one, he said.

Chance for youngsters

In the absence of Dwayne Smith and Dinesh Karthik, would it mean more responsibility for the likes of Jalaj Saxena ? “It’s an opportunity there, I feel. It is an opportunity for the young players and the IPL gives them the chance to become well known and soon. Let’s hope our youngsters seize the opportunity,” said Wright.

“Sachin (Tendulkar) has been a big part of Mumbai Indians, much longer than myself. He’s a Mumbai Indians man through and through. It will be great to have him here and our youngsters will look up to him.”

On whether Mike Hussey would open, Wright wouldn’t give too much away.

Showering praise on the aggressive Aussie, he said he would bat in the middle order if need be. Equally effusive with compliments for Rohit Sharma’s captaincy, he said the gifted batsman slipped into the role effortlessly.

“Not only are his tactical decisions impressive, his leadership has been through personal performance as well,” he added.

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