Defying all odds, the 13th edition of the Indian Premier League finally kicks off, much to delight of cricket fans all around the world. In the initial days of the coronavirus pandemic in India, the IPL was suspended twice – for 15 days in March, and indefinitely in April. The pandemic has only worsened since, but the restart of international cricket in England in July ignited hopes of a return to the sport – albeit with certain limitations.
In came the bio-secure bubbles, the stringent laws over the usage of balls and the conduct of players, and the cricket was back. England showed the way and the rest of the world followed suit. The West Indies successfully organised the Caribbean Premier League in August-September, followed by Afghanistan’s Shpageeza Cricket League. On Saturday, it will be the turn of the biggest franchise cricket league in the game – the Indian Premier League.
In IPL, the fans all around the world find a distraction from the ever-present concerns surrounding the coronavirus pandemic. The return of familiar faces knocking the cricket ball on television screens brings relief and happiness, for such a long break in Indian cricket is unheard of.
IPL’s defending champions Mumbai Indians will be taking on the previous year’s runners-up Chennai Super Kings in the opening game. The game will also mark the return of one of India’s greatest cricketing icons, MS Dhoni to the field. Dhoni, who announced his international retirement last month, will make a return to action after more than a year since he was last seen in a cricket match.
A majority of Indian cricketers, including India’s limited-overs vice-captain Rohit Sharma, Hardik Pandya, Jasprit Bumrah, Ravindra Jadeja and Kedar Jadhav among others will also be making a return to cricket after a six-month break.
It’s the IPL’s own ‘El Clasico’. The two teams which have won the league on most occasions, Mumbai Indians (4-time champions) and Chennai Super Kings (3-time champions) will be aiming to make a positive start to the tournament.
A lot has been said about MI in the build-up to their first game of the season – primarily about their poor past in the UAE. The last time MI played in the UAE, they lost all of their six matches before returning to India in the 2014 season. However, Rohit Sharma has downplayed the past and insisted that the team is completely different this time around. And he has a few reasons to be optimistic.
The first match takes place in Abu Dhabi, and Mumbai Indians are one of the only two franchises to have set up their base in the city. This offers them a huge advantage upfront, as CSK will only get to assess the conditions later today. CSK coach Stephen Fleming admitted that it will be challenging to play on an alien wicket.
“Picking the right side for the right conditions is one of the great challenges and we’ve got a good record at that. But I must admit, going to Abu Dhabi without seeing the wicket or assessing the conditions is going to be one of the big challenges to start with,” Fleming told CSK’s official website.
Mumbai Indians are also bolstered by the arrival of Kieron Pollard, who had an invincible season in the CPL with Trinbago Knight Riders. He led the side to victory on similar wickets as in the UAE, and put out some impressive performances throughout the tournament. Pollard notably stepped up with the ball in the final against St Lucia Zouks, taking four wickets in the game. Having an in-form all-rounder of such calibre is always a confidence-booster.
However, the CSK side trumps MI in the spin-bowling department, where MS Dhoni enjoys a relatively higher flexibility with the likes of Imran Tahir, Ravindra Jadeja and new recruit Piyush Chawla as his frontline spinners. The Mumbai Indians, on the other hand, have only two proper spinners in the squad, Rahul Chahar and Anukul Roy – both youngsters. Apart from the two, the squad has a spin all-rounder in Krunal Pandya. This could be a season-long issue for Rohit Sharma, and as a result, he will need his frontline pacers like Jasprit Bumrah, Nathan Coulter-Nile and Trent Boult, among others to step up. Hardik Pandya and Kieron Pollard will also have to pitch in with their contributions in the absence of experienced spin options.
Chennai Super Kings may have lost one of they key batsmen in Suresh Raina, but the side has quality batting options in players like Shane Watson, Faf du Plessis, Ambati Rayudu and MS Dhoni himself – all capable of building the innings, as well as scoring quick-fire runs, if need be. Mumbai Indians, however, lack experience in such versatility in their middle order. After Mahela Jayawardene confirmed that Rohit and Quinton de Kock will open the innings, MI are left with Suryakumar Yadav, Ishan Kishan, Chris Lynn, Hardik Pandya and Kieron Pollard among the major first-team players to fill the rest of the batting order.
Such players in the batting order could be a boon for MI when the top-3 shines, or a perfect recipe disaster when it fails. Barring Yadav, the rest are known for their power-hitting but raise some doubts over the ability to build the innings – especially when compared to the experience in CSK’s batting lineup.
CSK: Shane Watson, Ambati Rayudu, Faf du Plessis, MS Dhoni (c/wk), Kedar Jadhav, Dwayne Bravo, Ravindra Jadeja, Deepak Chahar, Shardul Thakur, Piyush Chawla, Imran Tahir
MI: Rohit Sharma (c), Quinton de Kock (wk), Suryakumar Yadav, Ishan Kishan, Kieron Pollard, Hardik Pandya, Krunal Pandya, Nathan Coulter-Nile, Rahul Chahar, Trent Boult, Jasprit Bumrah