The IPL party is nearly here and while it is missing a few of the big names, there's always a chance a new hero may emerge. © BCCI

There are going to be a few prominent names missing in action at the start of this IPL. © BCCI

After the marathon, the series of sprints. That’s what it feels like when you wake up to the reality that a 13-Test home season in India will be followed by a seven-week Indian Premier League party.

Before India’s home season began, I thought there was a good chance it would be scrappy, uplifting, controversial and make-or-break for some careers. On the whole, it’s proved largely so – though since the scrap and controversy came at the end, the uplifting part may have been pushed to the back of the mind. With the IPL, as a general rule, you can find some needle and outrage multiple times within an over itself.

The competition itself, though, will be the most compelling spectacle of the season. Ever since 2014, each team has always looked like having the personnel where, if skill allied with luck and form in the right quantity, it could go all the way.

A combination of factors has led to this. Most importantly, the uncapped Indian players became part of the auction. Also crucial was how the cost of retention was made steeper, and more in tune with reality (though it could still be better), and equally, how the players and the T20 game itself had evolved to produce a greater variety of skill-sets to choose from.

It’s no different in 2017, with each franchise looking like its Best XI would be more than a handful. Trying to determine just which of squad members would form a ‘Best XI’ makes you appreciate the thankless task that the selectors have, and before IPL 2017 has even started, it’s likely that a lot of this exercise will be as wrong as it will be right. But still, it doesn’t stop being fun – so here goes a Best XI for each franchise.

The swash-buckling presence of Quinton de Kock could affect Delhi's chances of redeeming themselves. © BCCI

Without Quinton de Kock, Delhi’s top order looks a bit thin. © BCCI

Delhi Daredevils
Both Quinton de Kock and Shreyas Iyer would have definitely made it to their first-choice team but with the two not available, Delhi have been dealt a blow. The absences of JP Duminy and possibly Angelo Mathews will also pinch, but probably not to the same extent.

XI: Sam Billings, Rishabh Pant (wk), Karun Nair, Sanju Samson, Aditya Tare, Chris Morris, Carlos Brathwaite, Kagiso Rabada/Pat Cummins, Amit Mishra, Mohammed Shami, Zaheer Khan (capt).

We are unlikely to watch Rabada and Cummins take the new ball together for Delhi – more’s the pity. But with Shami and Zaheer already in the mix, and Morris a certainty in the XI for his all-round skills, there really isn’t room for two more pacers. Of course Zaheer won’t play every match, and the team could also decide to bring in Shahbaz Nadeem or Jayant Yadav instead of Shami if the conditions so demand. But the calibre of players Delhi have lost does make you think that the top order has been left a little thin. Coincidentally, in the XI put forth here, each of the top five can keep wickets. Just for that alone, Delhi should go in with this top five at least for one game.

Gujarat Lions
There will be two players from Saurashtra who will not play the first two matches for Gujarat. But while Ravindra Jadeja will return and slot straight into the XI, Jaydev Shah – who should consider himself fortunate to have a contract at all – will probably not get near the starting XI.

XI: Brendon McCullum, Aaron Finch/Dwayne Smith, Suresh Raina (capt), Dinesh Karthik (wk), Ishan Kishan, Dwayne Bravo, Akshdeep Nath, Ravindra Jadeja, James Faulkner, Dhawal Kulkarni, Basil Thampi.

Bravo and Jadeja won’t be available initially, but this XI has been picked assuming they come into the mix sooner than later. Gujarat’s auction strategy for 2017 was strange. If you take away their opening batsmen and their pacers you’ll not be left with much. If either of Finch or Smith doesn’t fire, they do have Jason Roy to call upon. Praveen Kumar and Pradeep Sangwan offer canny pace options, but there is something a bit more raw and exciting about young Thampi, who can hit 140 clicks consistently.

Could Maxwell do a Steven Smith and rise to new batting heights upon assuming the captaincy? © BCCI

Glenn Maxwell the captain? That should be among the more interesting sights in IPL 2017. © BCCI

Kings XI Punjab
How will Glenn Maxwell the captain fare? That is going to be one of the most interesting things to follow about Punjab this season. They can’t go lower than they have, and perhaps the responsibility will ignite Maxell into 2014 form.

XI: Martin Guptill/Hashim Amla, Glenn Maxwell (capt), Manan Vohra, David Miller, Marcus Stoinis, Wriddhiman Saha (wk), Rinku Singh, Axar Patel, Mohit Sharma, Sandeep Sharma, T Natarajan.

Maxwell was mighty effective as an opener for Australia in T20Is, so you would back him to have the same success in the IPL. Between Guptill and Amla, form and conditions should dictate who gets a go. Alternately, Punjab could go without both, have Vohra open with Maxwell and bring in Eoin Morgan in the middle order. Rinku Singh is one of the younger players Punjab bought, but he’s been in great form in domestic cricket, so deserves a shot in the XI ahead of more established names. The addition of Natarajan might give Punjab the bowling teeth they have lacked so far.

Kolkata Knight Riders
When Colin de Grandhomme went unsold at the 2017 auction, it was a surprise. Kolkata have belatedly brought him in to replace the banned Andre Russell, and on the face of it, it looks like a smart move. Strictly speaking, Russell is close to irreplaceable, but Kolkata have at least given themselves options.

XI: Gautam Gambhir (capt), Robin Uthappa (wk), Manish Pandey, Ishank Jaggi, Suryakumar Yadav, Shakib Al Hasan, Colin de Grandhomme, Chris Woakes, Umesh Yadav, Trent Boult/Sunil Narine, Kuldeep Yadav.

It was unthinkable that Narine wouldn’t be an automatic pick in a KKR XI, but since his changed action, he’s not been quite at the same level. He can still be a handful, which is why Kolkata might want to choose between him and either Boult or Woakes, depending on conditions. Given recent batting form, I would also go for Jaggi over Yusuf Pathan in the starting XI.

Mumbai Indians
On paper, they are still formidable but Rohit Sharma is coming back from a long time out of the park due to injury, and Lasith Malinga is no longer the force he used to be.

XI: Rohit Sharma (capt), Parthiv Patel (wk), Lendl Simmons, Jos Buttler, Ambati Rayudu, Hardik Pandya, Krunal Pandya, Harbhajan Singh, Mitchell McClenaghan, Jasprit Bumrah, Lasith Malinga.

It’s a pity that K Gowtham might initially not find a spot in this starting XI after superb domestic performances for Karnataka, but he should be the first in line if anyone’s form drops. Mumbai also have able replacements for their overseas players. There is Mitchell Johnson for pace, Asela Gunaratne for batting aggression, and that is without considering the fact that Kieron Pollard still lurks.

A stand-in captain, a current and former one - Steven Smith will need to manage more than players this season. © AFP

Steven Smith will lead MS Dhoni in Pune – a dynamic that could be a masterstroke, or could backfire. © AFP

Rising Pune Supergiant
Satire writers will be happy to note that Pune remains the franchise with the name that can be most creatively made fun of – with or without the ‘s’ after Supergiant. How will they fare under a new captain? That will be most interesting to see.

XI: Ajinkya Rahane, Faf du Plessis, Steven Smith (capt), Manoj Tiwary, Ben Stokes, MS Dhoni (wk), Rajat Bhatia, Ankit Sharma, Ishwar Pandey, Ashok Dinda, Imran Tahir.

Their bowling options are a bit thin on the pace front, though they have the likes of Shardul Thakur and Jaydev Unadkat in the wings to step in should Dinda or Pandey not do the job. Letting go of M Ashwin, who had done well for them in 2016, was one of their stranger moves.

Royal Challengers Bangalore
As a cricket fan, I hope both Virat Kohli and AB de Villiers don’t miss too much of the competition. However, a selector has to be pragmatic, so I will leave Kohli out of consideration for the XI – for now.

XI: Chris Gayle, Shane Watson (capt), AB de Villiers, Kedar Jadhav (wk), Mandeep Singh, Sachin Baby, Stuart Binny, Pawan Negi, Yuzvendra Chahal, Tymal Mills, S Arvind.

Should Kohli come back, it will of course ease things enormously for Bangalore. But if he’s out for a considerable period, they will need Gayle to not be as hit-and-miss as he has been for the last two seasons. Otherwise, there is a case for pushing Mandeep up the order and bringing in Travis Head, who can also contribute some overs.

Among Indian bowling options on the bench, they have Iqbal Abdulla, Aniket Choudhary, Avesh Khan and Harshal Patel.

Bhuvneshwar and Mustafizur combined figures of 8-0-48-5 and kept Gujarat down to 135 for 8. © BCCI

Their bowling attack was already the envy of all other teams, and Sunrisers Hyderabad only look stronger this year. © BCCI

Sunrisers Hyderabad
The defending champions have grown – if possible – stronger with their auction picks. Their bowling will continue to be the envy of every side.

XI: David Warner (capt), Shikhar Dhawan, Kane Williamson, Yuvraj Singh, Deepak Hooda, Naman Ojha (wk), Vijay Shankar, Rashid Khan, Bhuvneshwar Kumar, Mustafizur Rahman, Ashish Nehra.

Hyderabad have a number of options to cover for anyone not doing well. Moises Henriques, Ben Cutting and Mohammad Nabi are all capable of winning matches. There’s something about Kane Williamson’s classical approach though that makes you want him to be part of the playing XI. And at some point, it would be great to see Mohammad Siraj get a game.

***

Those are the teams then. You can’t really pick a clear-cut favourite at the start of the IPL – which is one of the best things about the tournament.

The only time you could say with certainty that this team are the favourites, will be if we were allowed to field a team of those ‘Missing in Action’, and being a bit liberal with our choices of these – i.e. including a few names who may have appeared in XIs above but who will miss some, or all, of the action. How would such an XI look like?

My pick would be:

Missing in Action XI: Quinton de Kock (wk), Shreyas Iyer, Virat Kohli (capt), KL Rahul, AB de Villiers, Sarfaraz Khan, Andre Russell, Ravindra Jadeja, Mitchell Starc, R Ashwin, Umesh Yadav.

I’d wager there isn’t any XI named above that can compete with this one.