Since its inception in 2008, the Indian Premier League (IPL) hasn’t had to look outward for validation and currency. Propelled by its USP, the quality of its peerless performers from all corners of the globe, it didn’t take long for it to establish itself as the king of franchise- driven T20 leagues.
Even the best brands, however, don’t mind extraneous support from time to time. Entirely by accident, it’s precisely in this position that Season 14 of the tournament finds itself.
The unfortunate, but much-required suspension of the league in early May, with more than half of the scheduled 60 matches to play, has spawned a series of fortuitous developments that have piqued interest ahead of the league’s resumption, in Dubai on Sunday (September 19).
For starters, this is the first time in its history that the IPL is being staged in two halves. The closest parallel can be drawn to the 2014 edition, when the first third of the tournament was held in the UAE due to Lok Sabha elections in India, but when the action did shift from home, it was seamless. This time around, the four-and-a-half-month gap between the two phases has allowed those at the top to comprehend what they did right and provided opportunity enough for the laggards to regroup and mount a late charge for playoff spots.
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As if that isn’t exciting enough, the tournament will welcome back fans, admittedly in a limited capacity, for the first time since 2019. The last edition, also staged in Dubai, Abu Dhabi and Sharjah, was played behind closed doors, as were the first 29 matches this season in India before the sweeping second wave of the coronavirus pandemic and a sea of positive cases across different franchises left the BCCI with no option but to cry a halt to the proceedings.
Even accounting for the fact that all talk of a second COVID wave had been emphatically dismissed by the political/medical powers that be when the schedule for IPL 2021 was being finalised, it didn’t take long for the folly of opting to host the tournament in India to be laid bare. It was anything but edifying for high-profile cricket to be held in times when people were literally gasping for oxygen, though the players can hardly be faulted for trying to earn their livelihood.
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The BCCI, desperate to ensure that the T20 World Cup scheduled for later in the year did not move out of the country, got a little too ambitious and paid the ultimate price. Not only did it have to grapple with the challenges of a tournament of two parts, it also was left with no bargaining chip when it came to the hosting of the World Cup.
Like Act 2 of IPL 2021, the T20 World Cup 2021 too was moved to the UAE. As things turned out, the only window available to take the IPL to its logical conclusion was between mid-September and mid-October, just before the start of the World Cup on October 17. That has worked out just fine for all protagonists, not least India’s players, weaned exclusively on a diet of Test cricket for the last three months.
While all those representing their countries will benefit from hitting their 20-over straps just before the World Cup, India is understandably the only team whose entire 15-member World Cup squad is a part of the IPL. The benefits of reorienting themselves to the unique demands and challenges of the 20-over shootout can’t be exaggerated. That the reorientation process will unfurl at the same venues where the World Cup is to be played is a bonus for a side seeking its first global silverware since June 2013.
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The composition of India’s World Cup party is a direct reflection of what the think-tank and the selection committee believe are the conditions that will confront them at the first World Cup in this format since early 2016. Specialist spinners make up a third of the squad, and as much as the batsmen, they will welcome the chance to work out lengths, airspeeds and field placements in real-time, high-pressure rehearsals.
No one will be more delighted with the timing than R Ashwin. The off-spinner is making his return to the international T20 landscape after five years, more because his Tamil Nadu mate Washington Sundar is ruled out injured than anything else. Even an eternal optimist like Ashwin might have believed the T20I ship had sailed until Washington’s misfortune unexpectedly opened the doors for him in a slightly alarming reflection of the paucity of off-spinning riches in the country. Delhi Capitals can expect Ashwin to be a more dangerous version of his already incisive self as he plots and plans and prepares for what he would want to be a glorious return to the highest level.
To the stakeholders’ amazement, Virat Kohli threw greater excitement and anticipation into the mix by announcing his decision to step down from the national T20 captaincy at the conclusion of the World Cup. Even without this proclamation, the spotlight would have been trained firmly on him.
Under Kohli, Royal Challengers Bangalore have threatened occasionally but never gone the distance in eight straight years. They made a bright start this time and Kohli the captain will hope the break hasn’t scuttled their momentum. Kohli, the batsman will, by the same token, eye a personal turnaround. The torrent of runs till about a year and a half back hasn’t exactly been downgraded to a trickle, but Kohli needs to carry form and confidence with him if he harbours ambitions of breaking the trophy duck in mid-November and exiting T20I captaincy on a high.
Rohit Sharma, the obvious successor to Kohli, will attract his fair share of attention. In the Test form of his life, the Mumbai Indians skipper’s targets will be two-fold – to inspire the defending champions to a hat-trick of titles, and to regain his T20 mojo. The T20 carnival which has pitched tent in the UAE for the next two months couldn’t have asked for a better prelude.