Despite the many risks that must be managed, return of cricket's biggest extravaganza brings back much-needed cheer at a time when COVID gloom and sordid scandals have worn out the collective public imagination
The hype has been high and now it is time for hope. For months in a row, there has been an expectation in the air about club cricket's latest edition. The IPL is seen as some sort of a panacea for all the ills that have plagued people's lives around the world since the time the COVID-19 pandemic broke out in 2020.
Had it not been for the Coronavirus ruining plans, at this time of the year, cricket fans would have been lapping up all the action from the ICC World T20, which was to have been held in Australia. Australia, a country which is extremely cautious about its health, safety and quarantine procedures was not willing to host the World T20, so a window was found for the IPL.
To be sure, a lot is riding on the IPL. There is a stake in the big pie for all, from the players' to coaches, team owners, and other businesses linked to it. Even former cricketers who have turned coaches or commentators salivate over the prospect of the IPL taking place. Call it coincidence, the title sponsor for the tournament this time is Dream 11.
After Vivo pulled out, not wanting to cough up the big bucks this time, the search for a sponsor began, frantically. The name Dream 11 is in itself a bit enticing as the IPL being played this time is in itself a dream of sorts.
When Kerry Packer launched the rival World Series Cricket in Australia during the period between 1977 and 1979, with Channel 9 as a sponsor, it was seen as truly revolutionary. It redefined cricket viewership in many ways, some calling the coloured clothing, with matches played under floodlights as pyjama cricket.
Since then, pyjama cricket is the name for the 50-over format and the hottest T20 format as well. Traditional white flannel and shirts have been dumped and coloured clothing with all kinds of logos and ads adorning it has taken over. Call it a marketing strategy or want to look bold and beautiful, barring a few old-time purists, almost everyone has fallen in love with the IPL.
When Lalit Modi launched the first edition of the IPL in 2008, it was seen as a daring experiment. However, 12 years later, the IPL has become as important as dinner or breakfast, depending on what time and in which part of the world you are watching the matches on TV.
A few countries like England and Australia scoffed at the IPL in 2008 but are now an integral part of the veritable circus the event has become. You can love it, you can hate it, but today, people watch IPL matches for various reasons. It has become a topic of discussion every year, and even after the hangover of watching a late-night match, it generates great discussion. Not to forget, on social media, it occupies prime space.
At a time when the global sport has taken a battering and no sport possible in India, for the IPL to be played in the hot and humid desert region of the United Arab Emirates is a crazy effort. It has been played before as well in this region but the weather conditions and long duration of the tournament are going to be as much about huge sixes and bowlers getting clobbered as well as how the players are going to fight it out.
When one says to fight it out, it is in many senses. The creation of a bio bubble has been done very carefully and all the eight teams competing in the IPL have had to go through the rigours of repeated testing for Covid-19 as well as staying very safe. There are very tight rules and regulations for the entire teams and people linked to it.
Even before the first ball being bowled in this IPL, there has been plenty of drama. First, it was former India skipper MS Dhoni, announcing his retirement from all forms of international cricket. Within no time, his ardent admirer and Chennai Super Kings teammate Suresh Raina also quit international cricket.
There was commotion over a fortnight ago when Raina had to return. It is a mystery of sorts why he flew back, though the grapevine says it had to do with disciplinary issues in the bio bubble. Raina is now in India, and the CSK superstar, a high scoring batsman, will be missed by the team.
If Raina not being available was a curse for the CSK team, legendary off-spinner Harbhajan Singh also decided he was not going to the UAE this time. The genial Sardar has made it clear during the pandemic it is more important for him to stay in India and look after his mother and family.
So, that does hurt CSK's chances for sure, even as a couple of their players tested positive for COVID-19 in Dubai. One of them is Deepak Chahar, who is now back in the mix, though one will have to be very careful while subjecting him to IPL matches. It is well-known post-COVID-19 trauma, players have also faced serious health issues and cannot be subjected to the same workload.
For CSK captain Dhoni, this edition of the IPL is going to be a huge challenge, though none can deal with pressure like him. The format of the IPL is long and so many factors change when being played in the Gulf region.
From the weather to the character of cricket pitches, the 22-yard strip in Dubai, Abu Dhabi and Sharjah are very different. They are expected to be much slower in nature, though for the T20 star batsmen, to generate punch and power in their breathtaking strokes will not stop.
T20 cricket is known for innovations and the way bowlers are belted mercilessly. It is akin to watching a bullfight in Spain, with batsmen here like the matador waving the red cloth. Such is the nature of contests in the IPL, the edge of the seat excitement is guaranteed. This is not a tournament for the weak-hearted to watch and by the ball, the course of a match can change.
Some feel the Indian cricket board (BCCI) has been selfish in shifting the IPL to UAE. Sample the fact, there is no domestic cricket being played in India now but for the IPL, so much help has been rendered. Big bucks are riding on it and from the teams to others involved, there is a whole economy attached to the IPL.
Just to jog the readers' memory, when 50-over format ODIs were played in Sharjah in the eighties, it generated a lot of controversies. Betting, fixing and all other ills plagued the matches. There was also this anti-Indian sloganeering in Sharjah which made matters worse.
As much as the anti-corruption units will assure us that cricket will be played fair and square, the betting mafia loves the IPL. There have been instances of wrong being done in the matches played in the UAE before. One hopes there will be no hanky-panky this time.
One big factor this time in the IPL is how star players, especially the Indians, handle the workload during the tournament. Normally, the players are not just fit, they are also super match-fit. There is a big difference between practice and play.
Almost all the players were deprived of match play because of the pandemic. So, to come out firing and not get injured will be important. More than the batsmen, it is the fast bowlers who need to take good care of themselves.
Take the example of someone like Ishant Sharma, he has been injury-prone, dealt with lower-body issues many times. Even though a bowler bowls only four overs in a match, the intensity is very high. There is a little gap between matches and the late timing plus travel from one venue to another will make it very demanding.
As professionals, the cricket players, like the European club football pros, have to take care of themselves. They are paid huge salaries and have to live up to the intense pressure. Above all, they have to perform as the razor-sharp matches in the IPL are as much a test of skills as a player's fitness and flexibility.
For the fans fancying the chances of their favourite teams, this time around, the suspense element is indeed very high. Usually, before the IPL, there are previews and comparisons of strengths and weaknesses.
This time, nobody knows which players are in top form and captains of the eight teams have to be really smart about how they handle the matches. For someone like Virat Kohli, captain of Royal Challengers Bangalore, this is a big event. He knows, the focus will always be on him. He has to score runs, post wins for his teams and keep the morale high. Last year, RCB failed to deliver and the team cannot afford a slip-up this time.
CSK have a lot of issues to deal with while Sunrisers Hyderabad, led by the dynamic and dashing David Warner, will hope they can have a good run this time. As a batsman with the ability to change the course of a match in no time, Warner is a very dangerous player.
Mumbai Indians, the defending champions, know how they will be watched with great intent. Skipper Rohit Sharma, who recently won the Rajiv Gandhi Khel Ratna, is an astute leader and knows it will be good to get the momentum going early.
For Kolkata Knight Riders, the former champions, backed by Bollywood star Shahrukh Khan, this event means a lot. In Dinesh Karthik, they have a captain with good temperament and capable of leading the team with freshness.
Delhi Capitals, who have rebuilt, will be led by Shreyas Iyer, a batsman with great potential. He has some big players like Shikhar Dhawan and R.Ashwin who can fire on all cylinders.
Kings XI Punjab can also hope to do something notable. The captain-coach combine of KL Rahul and Anil Kumble knows there is no pressure on them. Away from home, in a different country, they can seize the chance as well.
As for Rajasthan Royals, led by Steve Smith, this tournament is one to cherish. Smith carries tons of confidence going into the tournament and is a very able leader. The big challenge will be to keep the boys motivated in a long tournament, starting in September and going into November first week.
The UAE has promised to let some fans in as well. However, as Covid-19 cases are rising in the Gulf as well, one is not sure how fans will be accommodated. In India and many other countries, the viewership for IPL will be possibly high again. People are bored with sad Coronavirus news and the Sushant Singh Rajput death plus Rhea Chakraborty ugly news.
Yes, the IPL can bring cheer, for all of us.