If there is one word that would best describe the lead up to the 12th edition of Indian Premier League, it is: uncertainty.

Even before the mini-auction, franchises were unsure of: a) how long the foreign players were available and b) was the IPL going to be held in India, fully or partially.

We now know the answers to both questions. We also know that IPL begins on March 23 in Tamil Nadu with defending champions Chennai Super Kings taking on Royal Challengers Bangalore. But with only fixtures announced for the first two weeks, the franchises will have to wait to know about the rest of the tournament, with indications that neutral venues will be preferred during the staggered General Elections.

With those issues, fully or partially, resolved, another potentially massive question faces the eights teams: will there be restrictions on how much their top Indian stars can play?

“To everyone in the BCCI, it’s clear that the paramount objective remains winning the World Cup and therefore, all that needs to be done to achieve that end will be done,” acting secretary Amitabh Choudhary told The Indian Express recently.

It did not happen in 2011, it did not happen in 2015 (both years, the World Cup preceded the IPL), and for the first time in the tournament’s 11-year history, an interesting version of the country-vs-franchise debate takes shape in Indian cricket.

Fully or partially: how will the top Indian cricketers’ roles in their respective teams’ fortunes play out this season?

Fast bowlers are the main concern

“Workload management” is not a new term in Indian cricket but it is unlikely that it has been bandied about more than a player or two before this season. If it were up to the selectors or the team management, you get the impression about half the squad would be wrapped up in cotton wool ahead of the World Cup.

“During the IPL, we will try and speak to the franchises and their captains,” Indian head coach Ravi Shastri told Cricbuzz, responding to the question over the fast bowlers’ workload. “We want to make sure that they play only an optimal number of matches without affecting their fitness or form for the World Cup. We will seek proper rest for them, so they are in absolute readiness for the World Cup.”

Let’s take a quick stock of things on that front:

Jasprit Bumrah is too important for Mumbai Indians. Mohammed Shami is the only capped Indian bowler in the Kings XI Punjab squad and new coach Mike Hesson saw his performances in New Zealand from close quarters — it’s hard to imagine him being pleased if told to rotate his spearhead. Kuldeep Yadav and Yuzvendra Chahal are X-factors for both their franchises. Only Bhuvneshwar Kumar is in a position where he could be rotated, if required, given the fast bowling riches of Sunrisers Hyderabad.

Is it even an issue?

First franchise owner to go on record about the issue was Kolkata Knight Riders CEO, Venky Mysore.

“We have not heard any such thing from them [BCCI]. The tournament is finishing early enough,” Mysore said. “If May 12 is the final and India plays its first game on 5 June [against South Africa], I think there is enough of a gap. But we have not had any such guidance or instruction.”

Mysore’s statement came after national senior selection committee chairman MSK Prasad had recently said that the BCCI is in talks with various IPL franchises to manage the workloads of 18 core players.

Asked what will be his stance if the BCCI passes such a guideline, Mysore said: “It’s a hypothetical question, to be honest. I don’t think it will arise. The cricketers feel that it is always better to playing competitive cricket than having net sessions.”

It might not be a problem for KKR, per se, even if they go all the way. Kuldeep Yadav, Dinesh Karthik and Shubman Gill are the three who are potentially part of that 18-member rotation squad and only the first name on the list will be, if at all, a concern from a World Cup point of view.

The other point Mysore raises about a three-week window is not entirely true. While India start their campaign against South Africa on 5 June, there are two warm-up games scheduled for 25 and 28 May. That’s less than two weeks after the playoffs phase in the IPL.

Possible to keep all parties satisfied?

The question, then, what are the options that BCCI and the Indian management have and whether it is a possibility to find meaningful middle ground.

  1. BCCI manages to convince the franchises to restrict the number of games uniformly for the 18-member core team. In an ideal world, that would be the end of discussion.
  2. But, is that practical? For starters, different players have different requirements. You would want the likes of Rishabh Pant, Vijay Shankar and Hardik Pandya (to name a few) to play as many matches as possible while players like Virat Kohli, Rohit Sharma, Shami and Bumrah could use the rest.
  3. Which brings us then to franchises agreeing to a case-by-case player management, which (from murmurs that have come out on the issue) is a less than ideal scenario for the league. The playing field ceases to be level if one franchise is expected to rest a key players whereas the others continue to play their best combinations. This becomes problematic especially in the latter stages of the tournament. Imagine a hypothetical scenario of telling Mumbai Indians (when they have to win all their last four matches like it seems to happen year after year) that they should rest Bumrah? That is unlikely to go down well with the management and the captain, too.
  4. Do the players take the issue into their own hands? That, they are the best judges? When Shami was told before the Australia tour to take it easy in a Ranji Trophy match, he went ahead and bowled as much as he could anyway. It does not seem like the most viable option, if accountability is taken into account. No one wants to be in a position where they regret a miscalculation with the World Cup around the corner.
  5. The final, and perhaps the most sensible option, is to let the players take a call in consultation with Patrick Farhad and Shankar Basu (Team India’s physio and trainers) on where they stand. As we all know, the data that is available for the team is immense these days and as long as the player doesn’t come up and say ‘I need a rest’, the likes of Shastri, Prasad and Co don’t interfere. This again, however, has the potential to upset a franchise.

The only thing that is clear, as of now, is that there is no clear solution to this problem.

As the tournament draws closer, there will be plenty more discussion on this matter. Whether the franchises are, fully or partially, satisfied with whatever framework Team India think-tank comes up with, is an issue to keep an eye on. A delicate balancing act is on the cards, that much is certain.