It’s customary ahead of an Indian Premier League season for the eight captains to pose with the trophy they will be competing for. Such is the setting in 2020 that, one of the team captains arrived in Personal Protective Equipment a few hours before the tournament starts while the rest of them are unlikely to even meet each other before the toss of their matches.
But eventually, the much-delayed IPL starts on Saturday without its customary glitz and glamour, but with perhaps more riding on it than ever before. The T20 tournament is bound to be a welcome relief to cricket fans during the coronavirus pandemic.
Along with other major international sporting events that were hit, IPL was postponed as countries went into virus lockdowns. It was then moved to the United Arab Emirates as cases rose (rather, still rising) in India.
All the eight teams have been in strict, bio-secure ‘bubbles’ since landing in the UAE, with the competition set to kick off when defending champions Mumbai Indians take on Chennai Super Kings in Abu Dhabi on September 19.
The games will be played behind closed doors at three venues including Dubai and Sharjah.
Here, we take a look at some of the questions (cricketing or otherwise) ahead of IPL 2020:
Will there be post-lockdown blues?
The Caribbean Premier League and international cricket in England has seen a lot of players return to high level action and they are likely to have a headstart compared to their Indian counterparts. It must be said, however, that the lack of cricket for a few months and the absence of fans did not essentially affect the quality of cricket in England and we might see the same in IPL too.
Rajasthan Royals batsman Robin Uthappa believes the tournament will buoy cricket-lovers after a year hit by sporting postponements and cancellations.
“Most definitely, it is going to be really special this year, simply because of what we all have gone through as a human race,” Uthappa said in a video posted on the IPL’s official website.
“I think in this unpredictable time, we were and are craving for normalcy and this tournament and sports, in general, brings about that feeling of normalcy back into our lives.”
AB de Villiers made an interesting observation, predicting that the overall skill level on display will actually be higher given the round-the-year-active players have had a chance to rest and are raring to go.
How testing will the bubble be?
Players will be ferried to and from hotels under strict BCCI health safety protocols. More than 20,000 coronavirus tests will be carried out, officials say.
The tournament has already been under scrutiny after two Chennai Super Kings players tested positive for the coronavirus. Several top players pulled out in the build-up, mostly citing personal reasons.
But the players have been making the right noises about being careful in the bubble. In England, we have already seen comments from players about the issues of being in the bubble, and the mental challenges that come with it. It will only get tougher as the tournament progresses. Especially so for a team that is not off to a good start or players not finding form early on, the bubble might make matters more difficult. A good start becomes paramount then.
Can Dhoni inspire CSK again?
Dhoni retired from international cricket last month but remains one of the biggest attractions of the tournament. It’s simple. In yellow, playing for CSK, is the only chance to see Dhoni in action going forward. There is no question mark over his place in the Indian side anymore. There is no intrigue over his participation in another World Cup for India. There is the IPL and that’s it. And once again, his team will depend heavily on the talisman to deliver on three fronts: batting, keeping and leadership.
A first-time champion?
Since sports restarted, Liverpool have ended a three-decade wait for the English football title, a man not named Roger Federer or Rafael Nadal or Novak Djokovic won a Major title in tennis... so perhaps IPL will witness a first-champion too?
For Virat Kohli and Royal Challengers Bangalore the wait has been far too long and far too frustrating. Winning a multi-team tournament as a captain is still missing from Kohli’s CV and would reaffirm his status even as critics question his style of leadership. The team is a shade better with the presence of Aaron Finch, Chris Morris and the wonderfully gifted Devdutt Padikkal, who if all goes well, is destined to become a big name in years to come.
Delhi Capitals, with their new-found vigour and more pragmatic new owners, found their mojo last year and would like to go one better under an enormously talented skipper in Shreyas Iyer, who can be matched in skills by a Prithvi Shaw or a Rishabh Pant. R Ashwin’s signing could be a masterstroke, too.
KXIP’s KL Rahul is a class act and how he shapes as a leader could also create a narrative for the future when Indian cricket goes through another change of guard in next the few years. Handling an inconsistent team to a decent finish will be on top of Rahul’s agenda as he seeks guidance from Anil Kumble and Andy Flower in the support staff.
How will the conditions pan out?
As was seen in the CPL, the pitches are going to play a major role in the course of the IPL. With the dry, humid conditions in UAE and the amount of matches played in a venue, pitches could end up tiring as the season goes on and the spinners could play game-defining roles.
While all eight teams prepared their squads with Indian conditions (and their home pitches) in mind, those tactics will have to be adjusted and the franchise that adapts best will thrive.
“I see this season is going to be very different tactically. With no real home ground advantage here, we’ve got to be very good at adapting to the conditions in each ground,” CSK coach Stephen Fleming said.
“We’ve got three different grounds to assess and each ground has its own character and nuances and we’ve just got to be good enough to pick the right team and get the right game plan to match that. It’s like every game is an away game.”
Delhi coach Ricky Ponting, however, expects good bounce at least early on.
“I think these wickets will probably be on the slower side but will offer a little more bounce. That actually suits guys like Rabada, Nortje, Ishant Sharma, Avesh Khan, Daniel Sams,” Ponting told the Indian Express. “And as the tournament goes on, the wickets will probably change. They might spin a bit more in the back half.”
The question on most fans’ minds is: will we see as many boundaries in this IPL as we are used to?
Who will emerge on top in the battle of wicketkeepers?
With Dhoni now officially out of contention, the intriguing battle for who is going to be India’s first-choice wicketkeeper will resume with the IPL. KL Rahul is now the front-runner in white-ball cricket, having grabbed the chances that came his way early this year after an unfortunate injury for Rishabh Pant. But the dasher from Delhi will be raring to go once again and show that he can live up to the undoubted talent he possesses.
Also looking to make a mark will be Sanju Samson who was in (the squad) and out (mostly, from the XI) of the Indian set-up. Consistency has eluded him in seasons past, and it is that he will be after in 2020. Ishan Kishan is not quite in the reckoning for a spot in the Indian team now but a good season for Mumbai Indians will change that in no time.
Will we see a Mankading incident?
And finally, for some drama. Because what is an IPL season preview without that.
Arguably the biggest talking point of IPL 2019 (unnecessarily so, perhaps) was the Jos Buttler-R Ashwin run out that divided the cricketing world. And even before a ball has been bowled in 2020, the topic of Mankading has dominated headlines, thanks to Ricky Ponting’s recent comments on having a chat with Ashwin about not doing that when he plays for his team. The two are said to have spoken about it in detail but despite them saying they are on the same page, it just feels like they might not exactly be. Will Ashwin do it again? Will any other team take the mantle over from him? Or will the non-strikers, you know, stick to playing by the rules?
Here’s hoping for, at the very least, more than one instance of a bowler running out the non-striker.
(With AFP and PTI inputs)