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Club cricket takes a new turn this week with the inaugural Twenty20 Champions League. Here’s a brief run-down of the sides involved:

  • The Cape Cobras, although without the injured Graeme Smith, will still have plenty of firepower with JP Duminy and Herschelle Gibbs the main threats. The lack of access to the large pool of overseas talent that the IPL teams will enjoy could be an issue, though, as could a lack of familiarity with subcontinental conditions from the non-internationals amongst the squad.
  • The Deccan Chargers boast a wealth of talent, with Adam Gilchrist, Andrew Symonds, Chaminda Vaas and Scott Styris all in the squad alongside Indian players of the quality of Laxman and RP Singh. One of the IPL sides will be expected to win the competition, and the Chargers will certainly fancy their chances.
  • The Delhi Daredevils pulled off a coup in securing Dirk Nannes‘ services for the tournament, and some of his fellow Victorians may be cursing that decision on Friday when he could well open the bowling against the Australian side. Meanwhile, Gambhir, Sehwag and Dilshan could be an irresistable top order combination if they all hit form. The loss of Paul Collingwood to injury is unlikely to be felt too deeply (except by Collingwood himself, who has ‘a little niggle in his buttock’, no less).
  • The Eagles are on paper the weakest team in the competition, but the likes of Dillon du Preez and Ryan McLaren have overseas experience, and Twenty20 competitions have proved ripe for surprising results in the past, so they shouldn’t be underestimated.
  • New South Wales could upset the IPL hegemony, with the likes of Simon Katich and the famously big-hitting David Warner providing the runs, whilst Stuart Clark, Nathan Hauritz and Brett Lee will be a potent attack. If the problems which the Australian national side had in the World Twenty20 can be overcome, then NSW could be heading home with some silverware to go with their international players’ natty new white jackets.
  • Otago‘s chief asset, as ever, is the power-hitting of Brendon McCullum, but brother Nathan can also contribute. Dimitri Mascarenhas, available as neither Hampshire nor Rajasthan have qualified, has a strong track record in this format with both bat and ball, and is a strong addition to the squad.

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It may feel like Ajantha Mendis has been around for ever (he’s already had a dramatic arrival on the international scene, followed by a relative fall from grace and then a minor resurgence), but it’s only about 15 months since he took 6-13 in the Asia Cup final. In that time, he is yet to bowl England’s batsmen, who nervously await in tomorrow’s Champions Trophy match.

Mendis bamboozled Graeme Smith with his first ball of Tuesday’s curtain-raiser, ending up with 3-30. With England struggling with the bat throughout the latter part of the summer, he may get a similar return tomorrow. Even if it doesn’t turn, Andrew Strauss’ stomach might.

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Group E

  • The West Indies may have hammered Australia, but that victory owed a lot more to Chris Gayle’s power-hitting than it did to competent fielding from the team at large. Conceding as many runs as the side has recently probably won’t see them progress any further, but such is Gayle’s talent that few totals are unequivocally out of reach if the Windies bat second.

Group F

  • Ireland have exceeded many expectations by reaching this stage, and the lone Associate side remaining in the competition will need more than a little luck to progress any further. The match against Pakistan, though is bound to rekindle memories of 2007, and there’s still a chance of another upset or two being sprung.
  • New Zealand haven’t shown as much promise in their two group matches as I thought they might, but the quality of Vettori, McCullum, Oram and Taylor (if all are fit at the same time) will raise hopes of a Semi Final place.

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New Zealand beat India in their recent warm-up match for this tournament, which is bound to raise hopes that the Black Caps will pose a real challenge. Brendon McCullum is perhaps the archetypal Twenty20 batsman (as he showed in his dramatic introduction to the IPL last year), and Daniel Vettori and Jacob Oram are both top-class bowlers in the short format, so anything is possible, but it would still be quite a shock if New Zealand were to take home the trophy.

Scotland’s preparations for the competition have been hit by John Blain’s walk-out, and the Saltires’ fortunes in general have been on a downward curve for the last four years. Gavin Hamilton (who has played Test cricket) is still around, but there seems little hope for Scotland to win a match in the tournament, especially given the group they find themselves in.

South Africa are now the top-ranked ODI team in the world, and have beaten Australia twice in their last two T20 Internationals, but their reputation as ‘chokers’ hasn’t yet been entirely shaken off. The recent emergence of the likes of JP Duminy and Morecambe’s own Wayne Parnell – along with the experience of players such as Kallis, Steyn and Smith – may prove enough for the Saffers to finally get their hands on an ICC trophy.

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Kings XI Punjab
Punjab have been relatively quiet in the transfer market, having added only Jerome Taylor, Ravi Bopara, and the previously obscure Burt Cockley. Sarwan has departed – having apparently only been on a one-year contract – and a number of key players will only play part of the season (Shaun Marsh, Brett Lee and James Hopes are all likely to be called away by Australia).

As with last season, much will rest on the shoulders of Yuvraj, who will be expected to provide batting pyrotechnics every time he plays. If he can find form whilst the Australians are unavailable, and Marsh can continue his impressive form from last year, then the Kings XI are capable of mounting a strong challenge.

Kolkata Knight Riders
The KKRs build-up has been dominated by talk of multiple or rotating captains, but the unusual situation has partly arisen out of the fact that the side has so many top-class players at its disposal. Chris Gayle is made for Twenty20 cricket, as is Brendon McCullum (who should be available for the whole season). David Hussey, Ricky Ponting and Ajantha Mendis will probably only play cameo roles, but home-grown talents such as Cheteshwar Pujara will be available throughout.

Sole auction signing Mashrafe Mortaza probably won’t alter the balance of the side much, but Umar Gul’s bowling will be missed, putting a lot of pressure on Ishant Sharma.

Mumbai Indians
A disappointing start last time around saw Mumbai fail to make the play-offs, and the Sreesanth slapping incident stirred controversy. He’s out with an injury, so discipline may be less of an issue in 2009. Dwayne Bravo’s recent form has been impressive, suggesting that he will be a key player with both bat and ball, and the additions of JP Duminy and Graham Napier should boost the batting.

Zaheer Khan has also come in for Robin Uthappa, whilst a number of the overseas players can offer something with both bat and ball, leaving the side well-balanced in the middle order. Harbhajan has so far failed to impress in Twenty20 cricket, but is likely to feature throughout.

Rajasthan Royals
Rajasthan confounded a lot of people’s expectations with their victory last season, but key player Shane Watson could miss much of the 2009 season due to international call-ups. Tyron Henderson comes in as cover, but the lack of big-name players (Graeme Smith’s recovery from injury may also prove more costly for the Royals now that they have lost the element of surprise.

Rajasthan, of course, are nominally my team, so all the best to them.

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Imagine for a moment that you are Ashwell Prince.

You have an outstanding English summer, but then you pick up an injury.

Upon recovering from said injury, you find yourself excluded from the South African side as they have beaten Australia on their own patch and are surely about to become the top-ranked side in the world.

That doesn’t happen, but the captain does get injured and the other opening batsman has a shocker, so you get called up again and made captain.

Less than 24 hours later, the selectors change their minds and replace you with an evil penguin.

How do you feel? Not as bad as Mark Boucher.

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Ashwell Prince has been recalled to the South Africa side, and made captain in the absence of the injured Graeme Smith (a victim of Mitchell Johnson).

Prince will also open the batting in place of the dropped Neil McKenzie, alongside Imraan Khan (not that one, obviously).

Having done well in the English summer, Prince was dropped for the home series against Australia having missed the away series through injury. An entirely new opening partnership is perhaps a bit risky against Australia’s newly powerful pace attack, although Prince’s experience is likely to prove a useful counterbalance to potential debutant Khan’s lack of exposure to Test cricket, so it could work.

Whatever happens, Australia – having wrapped up the series – will remain the number one Test cricket side in the world, although some will suggest that India may soon lay claim to that status for themselves.

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When Australia were going through their recent (relatively) dry patch, there was much talk of them having lost their ruthlessness. Mitchell Johnson certainly hasn’t lost his, as he demonstrated today – reducing South Africa to 0/2 (that’s two wickets for no runs, for backwards-scoring Aussie readers) and effectively taking another wicket by injuring Graeme Smith to the extent that the South African captain will be out for two or three weeks.

Johnson also drew blood from Jacques Kallis after hitting him on the jaw with what is often referred to as a ‘snorter’, or even a ‘ripsnorter’, of a ball.

Such has been Australia’s resurgence in this series, and their dominance of this Test so far, that questions may soon be raised about whether the Saffers, having wounded Australia in December, have once again flattered to deceive.

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The two best Test cricket teams in the world move on to the second leg of their epic clash (the first was, of course, the recent series in Australia) as the Aussies embark on their first Gilchrist-less and Warne-less (and, for that matter, Lee-less, Hayden-less…) tour of South Africa. The series will be the first for either team to make use of the referral system, and it will be interesting to see how Smith and Ponting choose to utilise it.

For the tourists, much of the focus will be on the less familiar faces – the likes of old Bryce McGain and young Philip Hughes. Marcus North, recently signed by Hampshire, is also in line for a debut, probably in the First Test.

For South Africa, the faces will be more familiar given the team’s performance in Australia- even to the extent that a fit-again Ashwell Prince can’t break back into the side. The pace attack (especially Steyn), so potent in December, will be crucial once again.

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Following the series loss to South Africa (on Australia Day, of all days), Australia have now lost their major home One Day International series for three years on the trot. With South Africa managing to win with relative ease despite the absence of Smith, and India plotting world domination, the Aussies now have challengers breathing down their neck in both sets of ICC rankings.

If Australia lose their status as the best ODI team in the world, there may well be some Australians who will be more upset than if (when?) they lose their status as the top Test side. I’ve spoken to some of them, and I got the impression that Aussie pride is more wrapped up in the success of its representatives in the brash, quick, aggressive world of limited-overs cricket than in the longer form.

The Ashes, of course, are an exception – I’ve ever met an Aussie cricket fan who doesn’t fantasise about thrashing the Poms.

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After the dramatic and historic Test series, South Africa and Australia move on to the Twenty20 series with an anticlimax somewhat inevitable.

The tourists appeared to suffer fatigue on their recent tour of England, fading quickly in the One-Day series and slumping to a 4-0 defeat back when Kevin Pietersen was still enjoying his honeymoon period. Mickey Arthur says that South Africa will be treating the limited-overs games as a separate tour, and there will certainly be no shortage of new faces. Herschelle Gibbs returns to the side following his stint in rehab, and there are set to be debuts in the first match for Lonwabo Tsotsobe and Vaughn van Jaarsveld. Johan Botha takes charge (somewhat surprisingly) of the team in Graeme Smith’s absence.

For Australia, Luke Ronchi comes in as Haddin is rested, the bowlers are shuffled, and David Warner (a Twenty20 specialist who has never played a first class game) is set to make his debut. The hosts will be keen to boost morale with some wins, and they have a strong record to defend, having never lost a Twenty20 international at home.

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Australia’s bowling attack has been crying out for someone to back up Mitchell Johnson in the wicket-taking stakes, and Peter ‘Vicious’ Siddle seems to have volunteered. He took the wickets of Smith, Devilliers and McKenzie as Australia put South Africa well and truly on the back foot in the Boxing Day Test.

Stuart Clark’s recovery from injury may now be more of a pressing subject for the consideration of Brett Lee (13-2-68-0) than it was a couple of days ago.

The tourists, meanwhile, are in trouble.

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