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RCB vs CSK in IPL 2023 on April 17 in Bengaluru. A file photo of MS Dhoni and Virat Kohli during an IPL match. Image: BCCI

IPL Season 15 is here: Bigger, with more thrills and spills

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It’s hard sometimes to comprehend that the Indian Premier League, cricket’s glitziest and most high-profile franchise-based cricket tournament, is already into its 15th season. After all, it seems like only yesterday that it took its first tentative steps, apprehensive of how the package would be received by the sport’s primary stakeholders, the fan.

Brendon McCullum’s pyrotechnics at the M Chinnaswamy Stadium to kickstart the IPL, on April 18, 2008, got the tournament off to a cracker. The curve has been astronomically upwardly mobile since even as the IPL has had to negotiate rough waters in the form of betting and spot-fixing scandals, the suspension of former champions Chennai Super Kings and Rajasthan Royals for two seasons, and the sacking of its colourful, controversial chairman Lalit Modi after the third edition, among other things.

For all the criticism the IPL has attracted, the class of the cricketers and the quality of their performances have ensured the sport remains at the forefront, no matter the frills and the distractions. No other league is as densely populated with global superstars than the IPL, which now steps into an exciting new future with the induction of two new franchises.

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IPL 2011 also had ten teams but reverted to the eight-team format the following year. From IPL 2022, however, 10 will be the new normal with Gujarat Titans and Lucknow Super Giants joining the eight original franchises in the battle for top honours. Between them, CVC (owners of the Ahmedabad franchise) and RPSG (owners of the Lucknow franchise) have dished out upwards of 12,500 crore to procure ownership rights, further bolstering the brand value of an entity comparable to some of the most lucrative non-cricket leagues in Europe and the United States.

The presence of the two new outfits is certain to send television rights bids through the roof when the existing deal ends at the conclusion of this season. It’s likely that there could be more matches as well with the ten sides playing each other on a home-and-away basis, though for this year, no team will play more than 14 league matches, as was the case 11 years back too when ten teams were in the fray.

Every IPL is accompanied by the promise of a new chapter in cricket, and the hope that from an Indian perspective, new talents will express themselves and make a strong case for national representation. IPL history is replete with instances of players grabbing their chances in front of packed audiences and under immense pressure and going on to wear Indian colours, none more pronounced than Jasprit Bumrah and Ravindra Jadeja. Venkatesh Iyer’s remarkable climb from a largely anonymous performer for Madhya Pradesh in domestic cricket to the catalyst of Kolkata Knight Riders’ resurgence in the second half of IPL 2021 in the latest instance of the IPL opening doors with a rapidity that its first-class counterpart can only dream of. That there is a T20 World Cup less than seven months away means the incentive for breakout displays is that much more pronounced.

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Given the guaranteed spills and thrills, the IPL doesn’t need props, but it doesn’t hurt, does it? Hence the thickening of the plot with four first-time captains. Hardik Pandya, the all-rounder with the shaky tag because he has hardly bowled in the last-year-and-a-half, will skipper the Gujarat team and Mayank Agarwal, the Karnataka and India opener, takes over from his great pal KL Rahul – who will lead Lucknow – at the helm at Punjab Kings. Ravindra Jadeja will steer the Chennai Super Kings ship after Mahendra Singh Dhoni, characteristically, stepped down two days before the opening game without fuss. None of these three has a great deal of experience in a designated leadership role, so it will be interesting to see how they front up and how adroitly they implement the plans chalked out in the changing room.

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The fourth first-time captain is a vastly experienced individual who has led his country with distinction, but who will step into the massive shoes of Virat Kohli. Last year, Kohli announced that he would be stepping down as Royal Challengers Bangalore skipper at the end of IPL 2021. Captain for nine full seasons, Kohli was unable to use even outstanding personal form to steer his team to the title, an anomaly Bengalureans were willing to overlook given how much entertainment his searing willow had provided.

It remains to be seen if they will be as forgiving of Faf du Plessis, the wonderful tactician from South Africa to whom Kohli has handed over the reins. Du Plessis is, in so many ways, the polar opposite of his predecessor. Where Kohli the skipper was in-your-face, emotional, uninhibited and loved stage-managing the Chinnaswamy crowd, which ate out of his hands, du Plessis is nothing if not composed and controlled. Kohli with the bat is an electric force, an amalgam of grace and timing and elegance; du Plessis is more workmanlike, seldom eliciting the oohs and aahs that Kohli so often does. The latter’s bat has gone quite cold in recent times but freed up from the shackles of being the top man, Kohli is a good bet to rediscover his fluency and prolificity.

The former India captain, however, will have to make do without having one of his closest buddies to share centre stage with. For more than a decade, he and AB de Villiers produced the most mellifluous music for RCB, Kohli with his orthodoxy and correctness, de Villiers through the most magnificent innovation batting has seen. In de Villiers’ retirement, cricket is the poorer; the IPL, the stage that the wonderful South African lit up so often, will miss the daredevil, but the show must go on.

De Villiers won’t be the only big name missing in action. One-time Mr IPL, Suresh Raina, was put out to pasture by CSK and found no takers among the other nine teams either at the auction in Bengaluru last month. Raina missed the entire 2020 edition when he returned home from the UAE even before a ball was bowled, but this is the first time he is available and unwanted. The left-hander has made the natural progression to the television studio where he will link up with Ravi Shastri, the former India head coach who too is returning to the comm box for the first time in several years.

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