The Twenty20 (T20) cricket season set in when India took on South Africa in a three-match series in February. And now, the Indian Premier League (IPL) is scheduled to begin on Saturday.

No longer will one see the neon colours of Gujarat Lions or utter the mouthful that was Rising Pune Supergiant. The two franchises have been disbanded after two stopgap years, and Chennai Super Kings and Rajasthan Royals are back to assume their natural positions.

Ten years ago, M.S. Dhoni’s star was on the rise. He was the hottest name in Indian cricket and by signing him as their marquee player, the Chennai franchise rode to immense fandom and success.

The roles have reversed since. Dhoni is in the final throes of his career and Chennai are making a comeback. Who needs the other more is difficult to ascertain, yet Dhoni will benefit from this association, particularly after he was replaced as Supergiant captain last year by Steve Smith, who led the team to the final. Rajasthan Royals would have noted this when they appointed Smith captain of their newly-rebuilt ship, only for the Australian to be disgraced in the ball-tampering scandal in South Africa.

Smith stepped down before the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) banned him from this season.

The 2018 changes

A refreshed IPL auction in January made sure that most teams would bear new-look squads. This ,in turn, will play out in terms of different strategies for various teams.

For example, Royal Challengers Bangalore didn’t buy back Chris Gayle and questions about his value to the side don’t need to be answered any more. They now rely solely on the bankable brilliance of Virat Kohli and A.B. de Villiers.

Chennai not retaining R. Ashwin was a major headline. The off-spinner will now play for Kings XI Punjab and lead the likes of Gayle, Yuvraj Singh and K.L. Rahul.

Gautam Gambhir has returned home to Delhi and will lead the Daredevils once again after 2010. A key development for this franchise is the 50% stake sale to the JSW Sports group. This is the first such high-profile sale of ownership for some time in IPL history, and underlines the tournament’s rising value, in keeping with the $2.5 billion (around Rs16,347 crore) Star India paid for broadcast rights.

Kolkata Knight Riders chose not to buy a captaincy replacement for Gambhir, instead picking one of the available players—Dinesh Karthik—to lead. The lack of a proven leadership figure has made Kolkata’s auction strategy seem a bit flawed, so they may be early contenders for the wooden spoon.

Ajinkya Rahane (in Smith’s absence) and Kane Williamson (in Australian cricketer David Warner’s absence) will lead the Royals and Sunrisers Hyderabad, respectively.

Perhaps the greatest change in this year’s tournament is the inclusion of the Decision Review System (DRS) for the first time in its decade-long history, with the BCCI and new broadcasters Star Sports (an offshoot of Star India) keen on getting umpiring decisions right.

Players to watch out for

Among the unknowns, young pacer Kamlesh Nagarkoti, who bowled at 140km-plus in the recent Under-19 World Cup in New Zealand, will get a taste of high-profile cricket when he turns out for Kolkata Knight Riders. This IPL season will also witness its first Nepalese player—leg-spinner Sandeep Lamichhane— who will hope to take the field for Delhi Daredevils.

England’s Jofra Archer, who lit up the Big Bash League (BBL) with his all-round performances, and hard-hitting Australian batsman D’Arcy Short, who top-scored in the BBL with 578 runs, are in the Royals’ squad, and are already fan favourites. The Royals also bought Ben Stokes, who was, unsurprisingly, the costliest player at the IPL auction at Rs12.5 crore. There will be intense spotlight on him to see if he can shrug off the distraction of an ongoing case related to a nightclub scuffle and perform on field for a second year running.

Jaydev Unadkat (Rs11.5 crore, Rajasthan Royals), Rahul (Rs 11crore, Kings XI Punjab) and Manish Pandey (Rs11 crore, Sunrisers Hyderabad) are the most expensive Indian buys in the tournament—and all three are under pressure to perform.

Unadkat’s star has risen in the past six months, but his T20 performances in South African and Sri Lanka have failed to excite since his prolific auction payday. Rahul, who rose through the ranks after a stupendous 2016 IPL, is fighting for his One Day International (ODI) spot once again. Similarly, Pandey needs to make an impression if he is to be in the reckoning for the 2019 World Cup.

The stakes couldn’t be any higher for the likes of Ashwin and Ravindra Jadeja (CSK). Both are currently out of the Indian ODI side, and will be aching to get back in contention with just over a year left to the big 2019 tournament.

While Ashwin has developed a variation of leg-spin, which he will be keen to showcase, Jadeja has been promised more batting opportunities by the Chennai team management. It remains to be seen whether they make the cut for India’s ODI squad for the England tour after the IPL. Chetan Narula is the author of Skipper—A Definitive Account Of India’s Greatest Captains.

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