The Indian Premier League in years of world cups is perhaps the toughest for everyone involved with the tournament. Barely days after an emotionally draining World Twenty20, the players, and fans, leave nationalities behind and put on their jazzy (or gaudy) IPL jerseys for the tournament starting Saturday (April 9).
The scheduling is obviously tough—Justice Lodha panel’s suggestions on a 15-day gap between tournaments summarily dismissed—but none of the players can complain. The IPL is a massive tournament in itself, for obvious reasons; there are domestic T20 leagues in almost every major cricketing country now, but none of them can claim to be as popular as the IPL.
This year in particular will be interesting—for want of a better word—as it’s the first time in nine years that the IPL will be played without Chennai Super Kings and Rajasthan Royals. The two franchises have played a major part in the IPL’s growth over the years and it remains to be seen if their absence impacts the popularity numbers; Chennai came with a massive fan following while Rajasthan too were popular as the nice guys of the league.
But Chennai and Rajasthan’s loss is Pune and Gujarat’s gain. The heart of both sides have been ripped and spread between the two new franchises—Rising Pune Supergiants and Gujarat Lions—led by MS Dhoni and Suresh Raina respectively.
Both Pune and Gujarat have equally distributed the core of Chennai and Rajasthan between them. Pune have Dhoni, R Ashwin, Faf du Plessis, Albie Morkel and Steven Smith to go with Stephen Fleming, the coach. Gujarat have Brendon McCullum, Dwayne Smith, Ravindra Jadeja, Dwayne Bravo and James Faulkner apart from Raina.
Dhoni and Raina are known to be the best of friends and together, they made Chennai the most consistent team in the IPL, qualifying for the knockouts every year. How will they fare in different teams?
While these two teams enter with a clean slate, there are others who have been there done that. Mumbai Indians and Kolkata Knight Riders look as formidable as ever and will fancy their chances for a third title. The key to their success has been retaining the nucleus of the side but both will have to manage – at least briefly – without their best bowlers, Lasith Malinga and Sunil Narine. Can they?
The one other team with an equally strong core is Royal Challengers Bangalore. Just show their top-order line-up to someone who has no clue about IPL’s history and they will swear Bangalore have won all eight seasons of the tournament. Miraculously, however, Bangalore are without a single championship title. This year, they will also be without their best bowler, Mitchell Starc, who is injured, but appear more balanced than previous years with the addition of Shane Watson and Samuel Badree. Will this finally be the year Virat Kohli gets his hands on that elusive trophy?
And then come the moderate achievers Sunrisers Hyderabad and Kings XI Punjab. Deccan Chargers—Hyderabad in an earlier avatar under different owners—won the trophy in 2009, but their successors haven’t even managed to come close since their inception in 2013. They made it to the knockouts in their inaugural year but finished sixth in the next two seasons. Punjab, too, haven’t done much barring the runners-up finish in 2014—the only year they played fearless and exciting cricket. Can they move up from the mid-table cluster?
Finally, Delhi Daredevils. Forever the underachievers, Delhi have finished either at the bottom or at the penultimate spot on the table for the past three years. This year, though, they have made some right noises by making Rahul Dravid coach and Zaheer Khan captain. They also shelled out some crazy money in the auctions for the likes of Pawan Negi, Chris Morris and Carlos—remember the name—Brathwaite and would hope the investments are worth it. Can Delhi avoid the wooden spoon?
But it won’t just be the cricket that will be in focus over the next two months. The IPL is the most convenient punching bag for many—it could be argued, of course that a string of controversies have done its image no favours – and this year, even as the players tried out their jerseys, dutifully completed their training and photoshoots, and the stage was being readied for the inaugural game, the Bombay High Court has questioned why the IPL should be held in Maharashtra during a drought.
And it so happens that the tournament begins in the capital of Maharashtra with two teams from the state, Mumbai and Pune, playing at the Wankhede stadium in Mumbai on Saturday.
Two top teams playing amid controversy. The IPL couldn’t have asked for a more apt beginning.
Karthik Lakshmanan is Senior Staff Writer at Wisden India . Mint has a content partnership with Wisden India for the Indian Premier League season.