Sourav Ganguly was still Indian cricket's first among equals when MS Dhoni made his debut against Pakistan in 2005. By then, he was already known in Kolkata, with tales of his six-hitting exploits in league cricket part of an urban legend. With so few top cricketers from East Zone, Kolkata quickly embraced him as one of their own.
It was to stay that way for another couple of years. Then, newly appointed captain of the one-day team and with a Twenty20 World Cup already secured, Dhoni started to push for generational change. The selectors were informed of his preference for youth, and a reluctance to keep faith in leg-weary veterans. Overnight, the good people of Kolkata changed their perceptions. The influential media coterie that surrounded Ganguly openly labelled Dhoni "Judas" or "Brutus". When Ganguly made his final Test appearance a year later in Nagpur, Dhoni requested him to attend the final press conference after the series win against Australia had been clinched.
It was further evidence of the tact that Ravi Shastri says makes him such an outstanding captain. "He treats everyone equally," he says. "But he also knows that there are several players who have been around a long time who deserve that respect." Today, Dhoni takes his side into the cauldron-like atmosphere of Eden Gardens to take on a Knight Riders team unrecognisable from the rabble that stunk up South Africa last year. The Super Kings were routed by the Deccan Chargers on home turf, and must take on a Kolkata team with a perfect record after two outings.
Having started last year's tournament with John Buchanan's multiple-captain theory and with Ganguly replaced as leader by Brendon McCullum, the Knight Riders won just three of their 14 games. By the end of it all, McCullum looked as pale as Banquo's ghost, as his team discovered new and innovative ways to botch up games. Buchanan is now gone, and Dav Whatmore, who has replaced him, prefers the language of simplicity to Sun Tzu's Art of War. McCullum too is back to being a foot-soldier, with Ganguly once again the main man. After Sunday's facile victory over the Bangalore Royal Challengers, Ganguly spoke of how things had changed.
"Everyone deserves credit," he said when asked about the rever-sal of fortune. "The support staff, the mindset, the atmosphere within the team, everything has changed. In Twenty20, it's all about playing freely." Even without Chris Gayle, McCullum, David Hussey and Shane Bond, all away on international duty, the Knight Riders have looked far more balanced and purposeful. Angelo Mathews has been the all-round star, following up a dashing half-century in the tournament opener with a miserly spell of 4 for 19.
Manoj Tiwary, back from exile in Delhi, gave the Eden crowd a glimpse of the potential that made him India's hottest batting prospect three years ago, while Murali Kartik, with considerable experience of the county game, is the perfect spinner for this abbreviated format. Most importantly, there's Charl Langeveldt, South Africa's canniest T20 bowler. He played just once last season, taking three wickets in a game the Knight Riders won, and his continued exclusion was indicative of just how much Buchanan had lost the plot.
Langeveldt and Ishant Sharma will face their sternest test against the Super Kings. Matthew Hayden and his new-design bat offer the most formidable of obstacles, and those that follow are no slouches when it comes to clearing the rope. On a sluggish Kolkata pitch though, spin could hold the key. Muttiah Muralitharan and Ravichandran Ashwin give Chennai an edge there and if the rejuvenated Knight Riders can see off that challenge, the dream of going from last to first, as the Chargers did last year, won't appear to be so unreal after all.
firstname.lastname@example.org Dileep Premachandran is Associate Editor at Cricinfo and the Asian cricket correspondent of The Guardian