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BENGALURU: Chennai Super Kings will launch their Indian Premier League (IPL) title defence against Royal Challengers Bengaluru on Friday in what could be captain Mahendra Singh Dhoni’s final year in the lucrative Twenty20 competition.

Dhoni played his last international in 2019 but remains one of the country’s most popular players, and while the 42-year-old showed some signs of slowing down last season he still helped Chennai win a fifth title to match Mumbai Indians’ haul.

Media reports have said 2024 could be the former India skipper’s swan song and the wicketkeeper-batsman, who had knee surgery last year, will be keen to end on a high and identify his successor if he does hang up his gloves.

“This year is probably more important for Chennai than Dhoni,” former India and Chennai batsman Suresh Raina said on Jio Cinema.

“We’ll see who he’s going to select as his deputy and say ‘you handle this now’.

“Even if Dhoni steps away as captain, he would be there in the dugout as a mental toughness coach or just for his presence. But who does Dhoni have his eyes on? I think Ruturaj Gaikwad will be a good option.”

While Chennai may soon have to prepare for life without their talismanic skipper, Mumbai made one of the most talked-about pre-season moves by signing Hardik Pandya to take over the captaincy from India team mate Rohit Sharma.

Pandya showed his leadership qualities by guiding Gujarat to the 2022 title but may find Mumbai fans harder to win over after the team’s decision to remove the league’s joint-most successful captain from his role.

Having regained fitness after an ankle injury sustained at the 50-overs World Cup in October, Pandya will also look to hit form before the T20 World Cup which will be staged in the West Indies and United States from June.

Mitchell Starc and Cummins to Coetzee and Patel: Six IPL big-money buys

Several top England players will be absent from the IPL, with Delhi Capitals batsman Harry Brook skipping the tournament after the death of his grandmother, while Mark Wood, Gus Atkinson and Jason Roy are managing their workloads.

Ben Stokes and Joe Root opted out of the player auction in December, depriving the IPL of more world class names, but Australia will be well represented, most notably by big-money signings Pat Cummins and Mitchell Starc.

Starc became the most expensive player in the history of the league, attracting an eye-watering $2.98 million bid from Kolkata Knight Riders after national team skipper Cummins briefly held that honour as Sunrisers Hyderabad bid $2.46 million for him.

Bengaluru’s Virat Kohli will add to the league’s star power and is expected to return against Chennai after missing India’s 4-1 test series win over England for personal reasons.

India wicketkeeper Rishabh Pant will also be back for Delhi Capitals after his near-fatal car accident in December 2022 but pace bowler Mohammed Shami will miss Gujarat’s campaign after a heel operation.

Friday’s opening game will be followed by double-headers at the weekend, with 21 matches set to take place across 10 cities by April 7.

The Indian cricket board will release the remainder of the schedule after considering general election dates.

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