IPL 11: The return of the prodigals and a format with no favourites

Author : Wisden 5 Apr, 2018

The Original Eight are back again, many of them retaining their original shape, as the Indian Premier League crosses the first threshold. When it was first conceptualised, the consensus was that the first ten years would shape the course of the league. The first decade has been an unqualified success, never mind the various controversies that have hogged as much attention as the action itself. From Slapgate to its Founding Father’s inglorious exit, and from the spot-fixing to the betting scandals that temporarily altered the landscape of the most eagerly followed 20-over league in world cricket, the IPL has more than just survived every potential point of no return.

That teams were happy to shell out almost the entire purse of Rs 80 crore available at the January auction, and that a new player – Star India – won the media rights for the next five years for an extraordinary Rs 16,347.50 crore point to the increasingly gathering pace of the IPL juggernaut.

The raucous anticipation with which the return of Chennai Super Kings has been greeted – practice matches have been played to packed galleries at the MA Chidambaram Stadium – is testimony to the fan loyalty that was one of Lalit Modi’s visions when he unleashed this ambitious beast. Like Rajasthan Royals, Chennai were put out to pasture for two years following the involvement of one of their team owners in the betting fiasco. The Chennai lads had to perforce go out and ply their trades elsewhere, but everyone knew that the big three would be back the moment Chennai re-entered the IPL stage.

Mahendra Singh Dhoni is no longer an honorary Chennaite. The lay Chennai follower is convinced he has transferred the honorary status to Ranchi instead. The former India skipper is loved, adored, admired, worshipped and deified by the Super Kings fans, and he has reciprocated not just with sterling cameos and trophies galore but by taking the franchise, the city and its denizens to heart. Starved of big-ticket cricket for a long time, the Chennai faithful will bank on the old firm of Dhoni, Suresh Raina and Ravindra Jadeja to lend meat to their challenge. They will be disappointed if the trophy doesn’t come back home, but for the time being, they are grateful that the only team to have advanced beyond the league stage every season it has played in is back in the mix, to start with.

Despite their stirring run to the title, shaped and driven by Shane Warne, in the inaugural edition, Rajasthan haven’t quite excited like Chennai have done. At various stages, especially because of their propensity to buy low and punch above their weight, Rajasthan have been the neutrals’ favourites. Their comeback hasn’t generated anywhere near half as much as interest as Chennai’s; if anything, the Rajasthan story was only spiced up once it was announced that Steven Smith, their designated captain, had been banned for the entire season for his part in the ball-tampering episode in South Africa recently.

Rajasthan will miss Smith, for sure, but not as much as Sunrisers Hyderabad will David Warner. Within the IPL, Smith hasn’t been viewed as an inspirational figure; Warner, by contrast, is much loved within the Hyderabad dressing-room, and his unavailability has come as a huge shock to a franchise that had based its plans around the left-hand opener. Warner’s stock went up once he took to leadership with aplomb, and steered the franchise to the title in 2016. Backroom staff and players alike have raved about his man-management skills, but if there is any consolation, it is that they have found a less flamboyant but equally respected captain in Kane Williamson.

Through accident more than design, Williamson is the only non-Indian captain this year. There are designated first-time skippers in R Ashwin and Dinesh Karthik, while Ajinkya Rahane gets a chance to showcase his leadership skills in Smith’s unfortunate absence. These men will go up against a quartet of Indian international captains; interestingly, the only one of those four not to have steered his team to the title in the current Indian skipper.

Royal Challengers Bangalore have put out strong sides for a long time now, and while they have made the playoffs and even the final occasionally, they have the found the final hurdle a little too steep. Daniel Vettori, their long-standing coach, believes this is the most balanced Bangalore outfit in the eleven seasons thus far, which would suggest that Virat Kohli will fancy his side’s chances of breaking their duck now more than ever before. Whether that translates into reality, or whether it is another year of heartbreak for the perennial favourites, will be known in a little over seven weeks’ time.

The return to Delhi Daredevils of Gautam Gambhir will be followed with keen interest. By his own admission, the Delhi franchise is closest to his heart despite his tremendous run with Kolkata Knight Riders, whom the left-hand opener masterminded to two titles in his seven years at the top. With Kolkata opting for fresh blood and fresh ideas, Gambhir has the chance to work alongside Ricky Ponting, and a host of young blood, in the city of his birth.

While the influx of plenty of English stars, headlined by Ben Stokes, should make for a riveting spectacle, some key names have already been ruled out of the tournament, the most prominent among them Mitchell Starc. The Australian left-arm quick had taken a voluntary break last year to keep himself fresh for the year ahead, but this time, a stress fracture has rendered him unavailable to Kolkata. Starc has set shop as among the premier quicks in the world but his absence will open up a slot that some other overseas star will look to make his own.

India’s stirring run to the Under-19 World Cup title in New Zealand at the start of the year – the auction came midway through their charge to the title – inevitably brought the stars of tomorrow into focus. The progress of tyros such as Prithvi Shaw, Manjot Kalra and, particularly, pace twins Kamlesh Nagarkoti and Shivam Mavi will accord the connoisseurs an opportunity to see how they can acquit themselves on a bigger platform against older, more experienced superstars in the most pressure-packed tournament in the world.

Winner-picking in the IPL has always been an exercise fraught with danger because this format doesn’t respect reputation, and there often is no such thing as form. Momentum, however, does play a critical role and when teams get on a streak – winning or otherwise – they gather a steam of their own, so discount any one of the eight contenders entirely at your own peril.

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