IPL 2021: Players look for rhythm in World Cup year

Ayaz Memon/Mumbai
Filed on April 8, 2021
AB de Villiers and Virat Kohli look eager to end title drought. — Twitter

The absence of home matches could have serious ramifications

The 2021 season of the Indian Premier League (IPL) starts on Friday but it’s accompanied by trepidations about the likely impact of the coronavirus pandemic on the tournament. India is currently reeling under a surge of Covid cases across the country, and concerns have been voiced whether the league should have been held at all.

Any breach of health safety protocols could bring IPL21 crashing down. Not too long back, the Pakistan Super League had to be suspended because of laxity in managing the health protocol, causing huge loss of money to the country, as well as loss of face.

To prevent similar disaster, the BCCI will have to apply standard operating procedures for health safety with utmost stringency. The 2020 season, played in the UAE less than six months back, went off without a hitch thanks to an uncompromising approach.

This is what the BCCI, players, franchise owners, support staff, broadcasters, vendors et all will have to adhere to if the tournament has to be successful. It’s a tough assignment, but not impossible, as IPL2020 showed. And vitally important, not just for cricket, but for live sport anywhere in the world in these hard times.

What does it mean for players?

There are benefits as well as hardships. The fact that the IPL is being staged is in itself a boon. This ensures occupation and livelihood. Skills are best maintained and improved upon in a competitive environment.

This is also the year in which the T20 World Cup is to be played, which makes it terribly important for players to be in rhythm and form. The monetary rewards from the IPL are handsome to say the least, which keeps the home fires burning when the less fortunate are finding themselves without income for long periods of time.

These advantages come with a price, of course. Living in a bio-secure bubble for weeks on end can be physically limiting and psychologically intimidating. Several players have voiced their concerns about life in the `bubble’ and some have opted out of assignments, or been given this facility by their boards, as happened with the English team. IPL 2021 will be played over six weeks. But each day will be demanding. Only the mentally tough will be able to cope.

What does change in format hold for the teams?

Because of constraints on travel etc imposed by the pandemic, the home and away matches concept had been removed this season. In its place is the `caravan’ system where teams stay put at one bio-secured venue (six overall) for a length of time, before moving on to the next.

This has removed `home’ advantage teams enjoy in such competitions. This could cause major upheavals, more so considering that franchises chose players and built squads based on 50 per cent of matches being played at home, where pitches could be prepared to suit them.

The absence of home matches could have serious ramifications.

In the UAE last season, for instance, CSK flopped since their squad had been chosen on the premise of playing seven matches at the Chepauk. The pandemic queered the pitch, as it were, and highly-fancied CSK became laggards.

Players under the microscope

Every player is under scrutiny, of course, but these even more because of extraordinary developments:

Pant and Samson: Injury to Shreyas Iyer saw Rishabh Pant, India’s batting hero across formats this international season, catapulted into the captaincy for Delhi Capitals. In Samson’s case, Rajasthan Royals punted on him after off-loading Steve Smith, ahead of senior pros Ben Stokes and Jos Butler.

How will captaincy affect Pant and Samson? Will they be able to handle three tasks, since both are also wicketkeepers, though Butler also keeps for RR? Handling senior players is always a difficult task. Will they be up to it, and keep the team together? Most importantly, will captaincy have a beneficial or adverse effect on their batting?

Chris Morris, Kyle Jamieson, Glen Maxwell, Steve Smith: Morris surprisingly walked away with the highest bid in the last auction, Rs16.25 crore from RR. Maxwell, offloaded by Punjab Kings, fetched Rs14.25 crore from RCB who then spent a further Rs15 crore on upcoming Kiwi Jamieson. All three are all-rounders, most coveted commodity in T20, but even so these are mind-boggling figures and will put enormous pressure of expectation on them. Particularly Maxwell, for whom this has come as a bounty-laden lifeline.

In contrast to these three is Steve Smith, former Australia and RR captain, who was bought by Delhi Capitals for Rs2.20 crore, just above his base price.

In the previous auction, in 2019, RR had paid Smith Rs12.50 crore. The slump in earnings, loss of captaincy and being dumped by RR can leave Smith scarred, or fuel desire to prove a point. What will it be?

Jadeja, Shami, Ashwin: The first two named are returning to big cricket after several months on the sidelines, after being injured in Australia. Their form and fitness will be crucial not only to their respective teams’ fortunes, but also their immediate future with the Indian team – across formats – so intense is the competition for places.

The World T20 has been scheduled for this year, and while the IPL is a T20 tournament, there is no other opportunity for Jadeja (CSK) and Shami (Punjab Kings) to convince selectors and team management that they are back at their best. Given the preponderance of talent in the country, no player can take his place for granted.

Ashwin’s case is piquant. Dumped from the Indian team in white ball cricket four years back, the off-spinner has hit such a purple patch this season, albeit in the five-day format, that he has forced himself into the reckoning for ODIs and T20s. A successful IPL season, plenty of wickets with good economy rate, could see him back in favour.

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