After three years of playing out in front of non-existent to controlled audiences, Season 16 of the Indian Premier League is set to return to its rambunctious, frenzy-whipping self from the time ‘Play’ is called for the first time, on Friday (March 31) at the gargantuan Narendra Modi Stadium in Ahmedabad.
Present vs past
By virtue of being the defending champions, Gujarat Titans will host the opening game of the competition against sentimental favourites Chennai Super Kings, under the stewardship of the mercurial Mahendra Singh Dhoni for perhaps the last year. Hardik Pandya, an unabashed and self-proclaimed Dhoni fan, showed last season that he was an able understudy to the master, fusing tactical and man-management skills to a nicety to lead the debutants to the crown at the first time of asking. The present versus the past offers a fascinating backdrop against which to welcome back two months of guaranteed manic action as the IPL circus reverts to type, with all ten franchises playing seven matches at home and seven away.
The humongous response to training sessions and the massive clamour for tickets and/or complimentary passes from invested fans and curious potential converts is hardly surprising. For the first time since 2019, the IPL will return to the pan-India spectacle it used to be, fans allowed in minus the stringent restrictions of the past three seasons even though there is a slight bump in the road, with what positive COVID-19 cases on a marginal rise across different parts of the country.
Also read: IPL 2023 Impact Player explained: All you need to know about new IPL rule
Only the very bold, the very stupid or the very naively ignorant will hazard picking a winner even before a ball is bowled. In any competition that involves so many teams, a million different things have to fall in place for a side to go all the way. In a tournament as pressure-filled as the IPL, and in a format where fortunes can turn within the space of a couple of deliveries, installing a favourite is an exercise fraught with extreme peril.
Outfits should get a good start, gain momentum
The first aim of the ten outfits in the fray will be to finish in the top four and assure themselves of a place in the playoffs, after which everything will boil down to what happens on the evening of the match. It’s imperative, therefore, to get off to a good start and ride the momentum, because no other variant is as dependent on that intangible commodity than the 20-over game where it’s just as easy to embark on an inexorable and endless downward spiral as it is to piece together a string of victories.
In this scenario, Royal Challengers Bangalore will feel they have been granted an outstanding opportunity to fire crucial early salvos in their qualification bid. Long before elections to the Karnataka state assembly were confirmed for May 10, the IPL organisers made sure they kept the first three weeks of May match-free in Bengaluru. What this means is that Faf du Plessis’ men will play six of their seven home games in a 25-day window between April 2 and 26 at the M Chinnaswamy Stadium, not quite their fortress but a venue where the energy, passion and electricity generated by the fans often drives a showman like Virat Kohli into performing even above his imperious self.
The introduction of significant novelties to playing conditions – the exchange of team sheets after the toss, the luxury of summoning an Impact Player, and the chance to challenge no-ball/wide calls through DRS – is a welcome development, given that the IPL often assumes leadership responsibilities in setting the tone for the rest of the franchise-driven landscape. An added dimension is the narrowest of time lags between the end of the IPL (May 28) and the start of the final of the World Test Championship (June 7) in London, where India will lock horns with Australia in another bid to end their global title drought dating back to 2013.
Also read: IPL 2023 Preview: Dhoni’s CSK, MI favourites in new season with new rules
There has been vague talk on ‘workload management’ of the fast bowlers especially who are likely to travel to The Oval for the WTC final, but only in an ideal world can a franchise even remotely be expected to put the country’s interests ahead of its own. It must be remembered that none of the ten franchises is duty-bound to toe the official line, if there is one, with regard to how they take care of their players. After all, they have invested millions of dollars in assembling squads they hope will take them to the Promised Land, even though they will make the occasional adjustment when possible so that the players are looked after without compromising the chances of the franchise itself.
Injuries keep good players out
Those so inclined might label this IPL the Injury Premier League, because a host of superstars will be missing in action. Primary among them are two of the greatest draw cards, Delhi Capitals skipper Rishabh Pant and Mumbai Indians pace spearhead Jasprit Bumrah. Both their travails have been well chronicled, and while the respective franchises might put on a brave face, no one is under any illusion that champions of this calibre can be replaced instantaneously.
Fast bowler Prasidh Krishna too is out for the season while Kolkata Knight Riders will fret over the availability of their original captain Shreyas Iyer, who will miss at least the first four weeks with a back injury. Last year’s breakout star Rajat Patidar won’t be available for RCB’s early skirmishes with a heel injury, while the long list of overseas absentees is led by Australian quick Josh Hazlewood and English opener Jonny Bairstow.
Also read: IPL 2023 Fan Parks in 45 cities spread over 20 states; full list here
A few overseas stars, among them Kagiso Rabada, Anrich Nortje and Wanindu Hasaranga, will join the fray in early April after dispensing with international duties, which means that teams will have to be smart and sensible in their strategising in a scenario where they are unable to summon the XI of their choice from the get-go. Coupled with the changes to the playing conditions, it will mean that the coaching staff will assume even greater significance in the only format where the captain’s role is secondary to that of the dugout.
One wonders what new batting and bowling innovations lie in store. It would seem as if everything that is possible has already been enacted on the field of play, but as history will testify, we ain’t seen nothing yet. Not by a long way.