Cricket-Champions Gujarat face Chennai as IPL returns to familiar format

BENGALURU (Reuters) - Gujarat Titans begin the defence of their Indian Premier League (IPL) title against four-times champions Chennai Super Kings on Friday as the Twenty20 tournament returns to its traditional home-and-away format after a gap of four years.

The 2020 edition of the money-spinning league and the second half of the 2021 tournament took place in the United Arab Emirates as India battled the COVID-19 pandemic.

Last year's expanded 10-team event was held mostly in Mumbai and Pune.

Ahmedabad side Gujarat, one of the two expansion teams along with Lucknow, capped a fairytale debut season by defeating inaugural champions Rajasthan Royals in front of around 100,000 fans in the final at home.

Hardik Pandya's side are the bookmakers' favourites to retain the trophy but five-times champions Mumbai Indians - the most successful IPL outfit - and Chennai will aim to reclaim the crown in the 16th edition of the event.

Home support could play a major role and Chennai's fans served up a reminder of what teams have missed with a thunderous round of applause for Mahendra Singh Dhoni during a recent practice session amid media speculation it could be his last IPL.

While a return to familiar settings will be a welcome boost for teams, they will need to quickly master a new rule that adds another strategic dimension to the game.

For the first time IPL sides will be allowed to make a tactical substitution with an "Impact Player" coming in to bat or bowl as needed.

Delhi Capitals head coach Ricky Ponting said the move would almost negate the need for all-rounders.

"Unless they're absolutely world class and getting picked either as a batsman or as a bowler ... I don't think you'll see many teams use the guy that might bat at seven and maybe bowl an over or two," Ponting said.

"You don't need those guys anymore."

Hoping to prove the former Australian captain wrong will be Sam Curran. The England all-rounder became the most expensive ever buy in the players' auction in December by returning to Punjab Kings for 185 million Indian rupees ($2.25 million).

Australian all-rounder Cameron Green will also look to live up to his paycheck after joining Mumbai for 175 million rupees.

The IPL will also present Green and other overseas players with the chance to get used to conditions in India, where the 50-overs World Cup will be held in October and November.

With one eye on that tournament, India captain Rohit Sharma has suggested his national team players should consider skipping some IPL games to manage their workload.

Top Indian players Rishabh Pant (Delhi), Jasprit Bumrah (Mumbai) and Shreyas Iyer (Kolkata Knight Riders) are missing the IPL this year due to injury, while England batsman Jonny Bairstow (Punjab) is still recovering from surgery.

($1 = 82.2310 Indian rupees)

(Reporting by Shrivathsa Sridhar in Bengaluru; Editing by Peter Rutherford)

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