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For a long time now, experts and audiences have argued about what the Indian Premier League (IPL) truly is. At inception, the IPL was an unprecedented show of power — a rousing blend of razzmatazz, entertainment, celebrity team owners, cheerleaders and some cricket. Over the years, the showiness has often smothered the cricket; on other occasions, the cricket has sparkled so much that the accoutrements have been made to look like useless ostentation.
Over the past 10 years, a decade during which it has oscillated uncomfortably between thrill and scandal, the IPL has shown it is much more than just a cricket tournament: it is a paradox that sparks hope and fuels cynicism in equal measure.
The 11th edition, however, has a distinctive feel to it. It feels almost like the tournament has finally managed to shake off the troubles that took centrestage in the past. Chennai Super Kings (CSK) and Rajasthan Royals (RR) are back after serving a two-year suspension, and few are fussed about what got them the axe in the first place. In fact, in a cricketing sense, the feeling prevalent is similar to what we saw ahead of the first season: eight heavyweight teams battling for an enormous prize, unmindful of happenings beyond the cricket field. And with fresh rosters — well, almost — and the eight teams that first started out, few would disagree that the IPL has come full circle. Yes, Deccan Chargers and Shahid Afridi are missing, but they were arguably forgettable, anyway.
Like most other things he chooses to involve himself in, Virat Kohli promises to be the theme of this year’s IPL, too. Our own tiny Indian cricket bubble has ensured that a nought in the IPL win column for Kohli is quickly taking the shape of something akin to the “Messi-hasn’t-won-a-World-Cup” status. There is little denying, though, that his preternatural success story would be incomplete without an IPL victory.
“Kohli is always motivated. But since he hasn’t won this before, I’m really interested in seeing what he comes up with,” says former India wicket-keeper Nayan Mongia.
The Royal Challengers Bangalore (RCB) squad that he will lead out will make the Indian captain’s task a little easier. In Yuzvendra Chahal and teenager Washington Sundar, Kohli has two of India’s finest limited-overs spinners. Their significance is perhaps amplified by the relatively diminutive M Chinnaswamy Stadium, RCB’s home ground, where the ball travels an awful lot more than elsewhere due to its higher altitude. Also at Kohli’s disposal is young pacer Mohammed Siraj, who, despite a difficult start to his international career, has been tipped for a bright future. And Pawan Negi — if he finally chooses to do something noteworthy with his very evident talent — can provide his side with a balance that often helps swing T20 games.
“They have all the potential, but have come up just short in the past. That is my worry with them. All that can play on their minds,” feels former India coach Anshuman Gaekwad.
A team that hasn’t stumbled before the finish line in the past is CSK. Still built around Mahendra Singh Dhoni, Suresh Raina, Dwayne Bravo, Ravindra Jadeja and Murali Vijay, the CSK side is now among the limited constants of the sporting world — Roger Federer’s timeless appeal and South Africa capitulating in a cricket World Cup semi-final are other notable mentions in this category. But unlike Federer, their passage to the latter stages of this year’s tourney may not be straightforward. For all of Vijay’s flair and velvety touch, CSK are devoid of firepower at the top, which essentially means an overdependence on Raina. Moreover, Jadeja and Kedar Jadhav, despite their quality, have played little limited-overs cricket of late. And in Bravo, Imran Tahir and Harbhajan Singh, CSK have three bowlers who clearly look over the hill.
“I still won’t write them off. Experience counts for a lot in T20s,” says Gaekwad. In their first season back, this IPL is crucial for CSK; it is even more critical for its leader. That Dhoni is no longer the feared ball-belter that helped him attain legendary status in the shorter formats is now an open secret. What will be most fascinating to see, however, is how Dhoni adapts his waning powers to the brutality of the modern T20 game. It will also be his first time captaining any team in almost two years.
“On a personal level, he doesn’t have anything to prove. But yes, he would like to perform well for his franchise; for the fans who adore him so much,” adds Gaekwad.
The man suddenly being spoken about as Dhoni’s successor has had it much better of late. Dinesh Karthik may still be “studying at the varsity where Dhoni has been the topper for several years running now”, but his current form suggests otherwise. “I’m really excited about Karthik. He can finally reach that next level,” feels Mongia. At 32, it is about time.
Last month, Karthik smashed a last-ball six against Bangladesh to help India win a triangular T20 series that also involved Sri Lanka. Now, he is all set to skipper Kolkata Knight Riders (KKR). The captaincy, it’s safe to say, couldn’t have come at a better time. KKR, traditionally heavy hitters in the IPL, will be without Mitchell Starc, a major miss considering world-class fast bowlers in T20s are rare. The Aussie’s absence perhaps unlatches the door for Kamlesh Nagarkoti and Shivam Mavi, two stars of India’s Under-19 World Cup triumph in New Zealand earlier this year. “The batting will be the test. Robin Uthappa and Chris Lynn will have to step up. But KKR will be in the mix as usual,” says Mongia.
In keeping with the trend of first-time Indian captains, it is impossible to omit Ravichandran Ashwin from this discussion. The off-spinner, the archetypal thinking cricketer, was always destined for captaincy. Kings XI Punjab (KXIP) looks like a good start; the franchise has put together a powerhouse that will take serious beating. “RR bought the smartest, Punjab the biggest. They wanted the best players; money was not a problem. And they got that,” says Gaekwad.
Coached by Virender Sehwag, KXIP possess two of the country’s best young batsmen in Lokesh Rahul and Mayank Agarwal. Assisting Ashwin in the bowling department will be three seasoned pros in Mohit Sharma, Barinder Sran and Axar Patel. Their biggest asset, however, may well prove to be Marcus Stoinis, the Australian all-rounder who has been busy making a name for himself in T20 cricket.
As for RR, their fortunes are likely to be determined by the trio of captain Ajinkya Rahane, Ben Stokes and Jos Buttler. RR bowling coach Sairaj Bahutule feels that the bowlers will have to rally around Jaydev Unadkat, who was snapped up for Rs 115 million at the auction. “The others will have to contribute but he will be very important. And with the kind of domestic season he’s had, he can make a real impact,” he says. Interestingly, Unadkat’s performances for India ever since he fetched that huge sum have been largely unimpressive.
Mumbai Indians may well be the defending champions and Rohit Sharma’s side will be among the more fancied teams, but a first-time winner this season would do the IPL a great deal of good. Delhi Daredevils, with their insipid record in the tournament, are unlikely to offer us that treat. So maybe it’s KXIP’s time to take the lead. Either way, we’ll be content as long as the focus
remains on cricket.