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Mohammad Kaif Image Credit: Gulf News Archives

Dubai: The Indian Premier League 2020, set to move to the UAE, may still be nearly two months away but the buzz around it can already be felt. Mohammad Kaif, the hero of India’s famous Natwest Trophy triumph against England in 2002, is also not immune to it as he prepares for his second season with Delhi Capitals as the assistant coach.

‘‘I think it’s a great news for the cricket fans that the IPL 2020 will be eventually held. It’s a big project and the livelihood of a lot of people revolves around it. If you look around, the England versus West Indies Test series has got over without a hitch while all the major football leagues are being completed - I think it’s been a good call by the Indian cricket board,’’ said Kaif, who is certainly one of the youngest members of any of the senior support staff in the IPL at only 39 years.

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If there had been a vote for the ‘Most Improved Team’ in the IPL, it would have certainly gone to the Delhi franchise last year for the way they bounced back to make it to the play-offs after a long gap and eventually finish third in the fiercely demanding competition. ‘‘It had been a big learning process for me last year under Ricky Ponting as the chief coach and ‘Dada’ (Sourav Ganguly) as the mentor. My advantage was my familiarity with most of the Indian players while in Parth Jindal - we had one of the most passionate owners,’’ Kaif told Gulf News during an exclusive interview over phone from India.

The tournament is set to be played under completely different conditions at Dubai, Abu Dhabi and Sharjah this time, but Kaif feels they have reinforced the Delhi army well enough to go all the way. ‘‘The arrival of Ajinkya Rahane and Ravi Ashwin, both former captains of their IPL franchises, will increase the experience quotient in a big way. The presence of Jason Roy, who played a big role in England’s 2019 ICC World Cup win, Australian wicketkeeper Alex Carey and Shimron Hetmyer, the hardhitting West Indian batsman gives us good balance,’’ said Kaif.

Much like other members of the team management, Kaif cannot stop admiring the way Shreyas Iyer, their young captain who was thrust into the role of captaincy in 2018 after veteran Gautam Gambhir stepped down in a huff, has grown into the role. ‘‘He has a mature head on his young shoulders and I am very happy happy to see him settle down in that crucial No.4 spot for India. Since last year, we had also formed the core of good Indian players in the trio of Shreyas, Rishabh Pant and Prithvi Shaw, who were backed up by the experienced Shikhar Dhawan and Ishant Sharma - for both of whom it was like coming home,’’ observed Kaif.

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Ajinkya Rahane, former captain of Rajasthan Royals, will add a lot of weightage to Delhi's batting line-up this year. Image Credit: AFP

While the proposed window for the 13th edition of the IPL aims at a September 19 start, most of the teams are looking to hit the strides early by setting up base camps in the UAE itself after such a long break from the game. ‘‘I think three to four weeks is a good time for the players to get back into shape. They are all professionals and need to manage themselves,” said Kaif with the Delhi franchise reportedly planning to set up base in the Indian capital itself from August 15.

Despite being in the thick of action for a relatively shorter span of six to seven years, Kaif was the perfect stereotype of what one calls a smart cricketer these days - a thinking batsman who could keep the scoreboard moving in times of a tricky chase and a superlative fielder who drew frequent comparisons with Mohammad Azharuddin. His ‘Man of the Final’ performance in the Natwest Trophy final against England in 2002, where Kaif contributed an invaluable unbeaten 87 and was involved in a crucial 121-run sixth wicket partnership with Yuvraj Singh, has gone down as one of the most memorable triumphs of Indian cricket.

Any conversation with Kaif most often leads to his lavish praise of Ganguly the captain, who is still held in high regard for creating a golden generation of players like Virender Sehwag, Harbhajan Singh, Yuvraj Singh, Kaif, Zaheer Khan, Ashis Nehra - and of course M.S.Dhoni - alongwith the ‘Fab Four’ themselves.

What was Dada’s real legacy, according to Kaif? ‘‘It was his ability of pick up the right players and backing them to the hilt. I kept improving under him, and so was Sehwag,’’ signed off Kaif.