“Expect the unexpected.”

Former India coach Ravi Shastri said this in his usual gusto as he announced his return to the commentary box for the 2022 Indian Premier League season. He then reeled off a list of established young players, the ones to watch out for, in this upcoming 62-day extravaganza.

With an additional two new teams in the fray and the players’ roster stretched thinner, all franchises will have to alter their strategic templates. Like any IPL season, it is bound to throw up an interesting mix of individual and team performances.

Even so, this tournament won’t be the T20 highlight of the year. That is markedly reserved for the World Cup to be played in Australia this autumn. While franchises will have an eye on the IPL trophy, there are at least three pointers that the Men in Blue would want to understand better before heading Down Under.

Is this Shreyas Iyer’s summer?

The answer has been blowing in the wind for a couple of months now. In his 87-match IPL career, Iyer has batted at No 3 in 41 matches thus far. After Kolkata Knight Riders picked him for an eye-watering Rs 12.5 crore in the mega auctions, he went on to celebrate with three successive T20I half-centuries against Sri Lanka. A total of 204 runs in three innings, unbeaten in all of them, only 117 balls faced, 20 fours and seven sixes, a strike-rate of 174.35 – all batting at No 3.

Under Rohit Sharma, as India has teed off its white-ball preparations for the next two World Cups, sorting out the batting order has been a priority. Against New Zealand and West Indies then, Iyer had been pushed down the order or relegated to the bench. It was a tough but necessary call, one based on the team management’s assertion that Rishabh Pant and Suryakumar Yadav could do a more attacking job later in the middle. Not to mention, the other Iyer, Venkatesh, was needed in an all-rounder mould.

For Shreyas, it meant biding his time in this short home season. The crucial factor against Sri Lanka then was Virat Kohli’s absence. He was given time off owing to bubble-fatigue, and Iyer made the most of this opportunity. If the team management saw him as only a back-up No 3 option in T20Is, Iyer returned the favour and gave them something to ponder over.

Let it be said here, there is no doubting Kohli’s track record. He has practically written the book on perfect T20 batting – get off the blocks quickly, early boundaries, run hard beyond the powerplay and then launch an offensive at the death. Batting at No 3, Kohli’s T20I record is immaculate – 2457 runs in 64 matches, average 57.13 and strike-rate 135.97.

Lately though, everyone knows he is having a downturn in form and it is also starting to reflect in his T20 statistics. The IPL has been a keen marker. In the 2021 season, captain Kohli scored 405 runs in 15 matches for RCB. On the face of it, this is a good return. But delve deeper – average 28.92, lower than his career-IPL average of 37.39 and strike-rate 119.46, down from career-IPL SR of 129.94.

Couple it with the ensuing 2021 T20 World Cup, as India failed to progress beyond the first round, Kohli only scored 68 runs in three innings, 57 of which came in one innings. His strike-rate was 100, even as the Indian batting unit came unstuck. As the reboot happened, India played nine T20Is this season and Kohli only featured in two of them – 69 runs, 52 of them in one innings, and strike-rate 127.77.

While it is premature to question Kohli’s starting position in India’s batting plans, this IPL season is key. By his lofty standards, Kohli had a less-than-impactful season in 2021. Another such in 2022 could set off further questions.

Could captaincy play a crucial factor? Kohli is free of the additional charge and would want to ascertain supremacy with the bat once again. Iyer, meanwhile, has all the freedom to insert himself at No 3 for KKR. He is riding a wave of confidence, converting it into a higher strike-rate at every opportunity, and rest assured this factoid hasn’t gone amiss.

One remarkable IPL season could potentially re-shape India’s T20 World Cup batting plans.

The curious case of Sanju Samson

Back in 2020, as IPL visited Sharjah for a first pandemic-hit season in the UAE, Sanju Samson found himself at home. He smacked 74 and 85 in his first two outings that season, a strike-rate of more than 200, and as always set off an annual chain of events – start big and then taper off. The 2021 season was no different – 159 runs in two innings, he would then finish the season with 375 runs, only another 216 runs from his next 12 outings.

What he said after smacking that 85 in Sharjah, though, was the gobsmacking part. “I have only 10 more years left to play cricket and I want to make the most of it,” said the then 25-year old in a TV interview. It made for some wonderment – are momentary IPL performances the height of Samson’s career ambitions?

Perhaps not, and his fans – Samson FC in football Twitter terms – would argue vehemently that their star player has been denied long-run opportunities at the international stage. This bit isn’t really true. Samson was first picked for India almost eight years ago, when India was touring England in 2014. If the likes of KL Rahul, Shreyas Iyer, Rishabh Pant, SKY and Ishan Kishan are further in conversation than him, it is Samson’s fault alone.

Take the 2020-21 Australian tour for example. As India rejigged its batting plans, Samson found an opportunity in the middle order. He managed only 48 runs in three games, 23 of them in one innings. Or, the Sri Lankan tour in 2021 later, wherein India had sent its ‘B’ team. Samson scored only 34 runs in three matches, 27 in one innings.

Through consistent showings in domestic cricket and his several IPL outings, talent has met opportunity. On the international stage though, Samson has let go of his chances through some careless strokeplay and reverted to the fringes all on his own. The concept of a longer rope doesn’t augur well in Indian cricket any more, especially when the IPL keeps throwing up new names every 12 months.

It has already been two years since those couple of Sharjah knocks, and time isn’t on Samson’s side. IPL 2022 could then be Samson’s last big hope.

He was recalled to the Indian T20 set-up for the recent Sri Lanka series as Rishabh Pant was rested. Rohit went on record to say that Samson’s backfoot strokeplay could be an asset in Australia for the World Cup. The key, though, is finding a tune in Samson’s form and a calculative spot in the touring party. With Pant and Kishan on confirmed tickets as keeper-batsmen, Samson has to push for an out-and-out batting spot, and therein is the hard part.

Three names, one bowling spot

An IPL auction can be a keen indicator of the rising stock of some players, and the reverse is also true. When Chennai Super Kings made Deepak Chahar their most expensive buy at Rs 14 crore and Delhi Capitals got Shardul Thakur after another bidding session at Rs 10.75 crore, the writing was perhaps on the wall for Bhuvneshwar Kumar. He went back to Sunrisers Hyderabad for Rs 4.2 crore.

It isn’t to say that only one party was interested in him, no. Kumar invited bids from Rajasthan Royals, Mumbai Indians and Lucknow Super Giants. Intense desperation to bag the player though was lacking, almost as if something was amiss.

Mind you, Kumar is still a versatile bowling all-rounder and on his day can be very useful. That’s the inherent clause though – ‘on his day’ is increasingly becoming few and far between. A major factor herein is lack of bowling fitness; Kumar is inherently always building up his physical bowling condition, and then arrives undercooked in a major tournament like the 2021 T20 World Cup. He played one game there and was dropped after the Pakistan openers went after him.

It was a reminder of how India needed to move on and find alternatives. It just so happens that Chahar and Thakur provide those options, for these are three bowling all-rounders in much the same mould. This last bit is very vital to India’s search for a proper bowling balance on Australia’s hard and bouncy surfaces, where early swing will be at a premium. On those decks, pace and bounce is of more value than movement.

In turn, this facet restricts India’s options. Jasprit Bumrah is one, and when available, he is an automatic selection irrespective of format, conditions or opposition. India’s other choice has to be between Avesh Khan, Mohammed Siraj and Harshal Patel. Among the trio, there is pace, early movement, death bowling and variations to pick from. And if India is looking to go in with three pacers-two spinners plus one all-rounder formula, then it leaves one bowling spot for Kumar, Chahar and Thakur.

It then comes down to opportunities. Chennai have lost a lot of good players in the auction, and Chahar will find himself playing a crucial role, when he regains bowling fitness. In that, he is a younger, if not fitter, version of Kumar. A weakened team composition is much the same for Delhi, wherein Thakur will be elevated to a spot with more batting responsibility. For him, the key is to find a sharp balance between those two roles, like he has done in the Test arena.

Kumar’s personal brief for this IPL, then, is to outperform the two of them, plain and simple.