But away from the entire hype and media glare, a little-known team from New Zealand, featuring players who were considered a force to reckon with a few years ago, namely the Auckland Aces, have slowly but surely made their presence felt in the initial rounds of the tournament. They brushed aside formidable sides like Sialkot Stallions and Hampshire during the qualifying stages before making mincemeat of the Indian Premier League (IPL) champions in their first match of the main round.
Auckland’s seven-wicket victory over the Kolkata Knight Riders (KKR) would not have come as a surprise to people who’ve been tracking the side’s journey. The Aces were the first to arrive at South Africa, two weeks before the scheduled start of the tournament. While the other teams were devoid of some star players and yet to devise a strategy to implement in the CLT20, the men from Auckland were busy adapting to the conditions and looked determined to bring about a reversal in their fortunes. After all, they failed to get past the qualifying stages during the last edition of the CLT20.
Martin Guptill, Lou Vincent, Azhar Mahmood, Ronnie Hira, Kyle Mills and Andre Adams are a few known names in the Auckland Aces. These players can tend to be a thorn in the flesh of the opposition, but when compared to some star-studded line-ups in this tournament, very few might consider the Aces to be favourites. Nevertheless, this side from New Zealand has shown how determination intertwined with preparation can go a long way in toppling even the champions. Although these are still early days in the tournament, it’s evident that the Aces will be the last side to remove their foot off the pedal.
In a way, they are fortunate to have the services of an all-rounder like Azhar Mahmood, who’s been in sublime form since the past few months and busy tearing the opposition apart. Azhar managed respectable performances in this year’s IPL, scoring 186 runs in 10 innings and 14 wickets to his name and seems to have peaked at the right moment for Auckland Aces. Currently the highest run-scorer and wicket-taker in this year’s CLT20, 37-year-old Azhar appears to be moving from strength to strength, with two half-centuries and a five-wicket haul already under his belt.
As mentioned, there are other names too in this Auckland side that makes them such a formidable unit. In the HRV Cup - New Zealand’s domestic Twenty20 competition - there was no team that could give Auckland a run for its money. Apart from a rare loss to Wellington during the league stages, they cruised to victory in all their remaining games, including the finals against Canterbury that they eventually won by a whopping margin of 44 runs.
Two of Auckland’s players –Guptill and Mahmood – featured in the list of top three run-getters in the HRV Cup. While Guptill amassed 504 runs at an average of 72, Azhar collected 331 at 41.37. The fact that four of Auckland’s bowlers also made their way into the highest wicket-takers list during that tournament was an icing on the cake. The reason behind mentioning these players and their performances during the HRV Cup is to point out the fact that it’s the same names delivering this time around as well.
Guptill and Anaru Kitchen are slowly but steadily establishing their foothold, whereas Hira and Mills have played the roles of unsung heroes with the ball quite effectively thus far. It’s important to remember that they’ve played just one game in the main round of this CLT20, and have already shown signs of peaking. Their next two fixtures are against the South African-based Titans and India’s Delhi Daredevils respectively. However, after a resounding victory over the IPL champions, there is little doubt that the Auckland side will be riding high on confidence.
With Azhar, Guptill, Mills and Hira showing what they’re capable of, and taking the effort and preparation they’ve put coming into this tournament into consideration, one shouldn’t be surprised if the Aces manage to go the distance.
(Karthik Parimal, a Correspondent with CricketCountry, is a cricket aficionado and a worshipper of the game. He idolises Steve Waugh and can give up anything, absolutely anything, just to watch a Kumar Sangakkara cover drive. He can be followed on Twitter at https://twitter.com/