We’re midway through the qualifying stage of Champions League T20 2014 in India—which is back without too much commotion after a pulsating round of domestic T20 leagues all over the world—and things are already heating up. 
Four teams are in the qualifying pool—teams that have either finished runner-up or outside the automatic qualification spots. Two of these teams will go through to the main pool—which consists of the first-timers Barbados Tridents (WI), Cape Cobras (SA), Chennai Super Kings (IND), first-timers Dolphins (SA), first-timers Hobart Hurricanes (AUS), first-timers Kings XI Punjab (IND), Kolkata Knight Riders (IND) and Perth Scorchers (AUS). 
This time, with the addition of a Pakistani team for the qualifiers touring India, it will truly be a test for the rest.
The FOUR teams:
They’re the defending champions after one of the most successful seasons (2013) in the history of franchise cricket. That they’re having to qualify and struggle like the other bridesmaids has a lot to do with their ordinary start to IPL 2014, before pulling off one of the greatest Houdini acts in IPL history towards the end of the season, displacing Rajasthan Royals by chasing down 190-odd in 13.4 overs. They finished fourth, and are therefore battling it out with Pakistan, New Zealand and Sri Lankan teams for a spot in one of the two groups. In the absence of captain Rohit Sharma, their batting is further weakened and are being led by big-hitting Pollard. It is down to openers Lendl Simmons and Mike Hussey to ensure that they go through without major hiccups—as they have just done so against Southern Express with a huge opening partnership. They fell short against the Lahore Lions, but are still in the reckoning after two matches. This will still not hide their weaknesses, and it will be very difficult to defend their crown with such an unbalanced squad. 
X-factor: Lendl Simmons. The young West Indian was quite a revelation in the IPL, even scoring the Indians’ only century of the league. He lends some much-needed experience at the top, with the ageing Hussey often struggling to push things along. 
The best and most balanced of the four teams in the qualifying pool, Northern Districts are led by batsman Daniel Flynn. More importantly, they have young sensation Kane Williamson opening the batting, with old warhorse Scott Styris in the middle order and bowlers Boult, Southee and Sodhi leading the attack. So far, Boult and Southee have destroyed the Lions as well as Express batting line-ups. They have won both their games convincingly, and will face Mumbai Indians in the final match to ensure top qualification spot. New Zealand T20 teams have a history of being dark horses and doing well in this tournament, and ND look good to carry on the tradition. 
X-factor: Kane Williamson. His success will define his team’s progress in the early stages of the tournament. 
The Pakistani T20 champions are led by Hafeez, but will be disappointed for emulating the inconsistency of their national team by defeating Mumbai Indians but losing badly to Northern Districts after being bowled out for less than 100. The squad is dynamic and talented, with out-of-favour wonderkid Nasir Jamshed opening with Ahmed Shehzad. Umar Akmal destroyed Mumbai Indians, while Wahab Riaz and Cheema complete the attack. With so many internationals in their squad, it will be a shock if they do not qualify for the main tournament—especially considering how much depth and balance they have in comparison to their Indian counterparts. 
X-factor: Nasir Jamshed. He hasn’t had the best 365 days, but will look to make it count in the final game against the Sri Lankans. It will come down to NRR for these teams, and it is upto him to kick it up a notch. 
It is a pity that the T20 World Champion country can’t provide a decent T20 domestic team to compete in this tournament. Express are already out of contention after two toothless performances—one of them rain curtailed against ND—and a look at their squad explains why. A lot of young local players are amidst the mix with retired veterans like Mubarak and Maharoof. Young Jayasuriya-clone Kushal Perera hasn’t got going at the top, and it has cost them against more experienced T20 teams. 
X-factor: Nobody.

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