The 2021 season of the Indian Premier League (IPL) is all set to kick off on Friday at the M A Chidambaram Stadium in Chennai. The tournament will be held over a period of seven weeks across six venues. Due to the COVID- 19 pandemic and requirements of bio-secure bubbles, games will be played at two venues each for a fortnight till the knockout phase. Matches would take place at Chennai and Wankhede Stadium, Mumbai, from April 9 to 25, at the Narendra Modi Stadium, Ahmedabad, and Arun Jaitley Stadium, New Delhi, from April 26 to May 8 and at Eden Gardens, Kolkata, and M Chinnaswamy stadium, Bangalore, from May 9 till 23rd. Ahmedabad will host the play-offs and bring down the curtains on the 14th edition of the IPL on May 30.
The million dollar question that precedes the beginning of the championship every year is about the ultimate winner. A peek into the history of tournament shows us that Mumbai Indians (MI) have won the title on five occasions, followed by Chennai Super Kings (CSK) with three titles. Kolkata Knight Riders (KKR) emerged champions twice, while Rajasthan Royals (RR) and Sunrisers Hyderabad (SRH) have one title triumph to their credit. Deccan Chargers, the Hyderabad-based franchisee who lifted the trophy in 2009, dropped out of the championship in 2012, following which their place was taken by SRH. Thus, there are three sides - Royal Challengers Bangalore (RCB), Punjab Kings (PBKS) and Delhi Capitals (DC), who are yet to win the championship. Of the above, RCB were runners-up on three occasions, while franchisees from Punjab and Delhi reached the finals once each, without being able to breach the final frontier.
MI have lorded over other sides in this championship in the recent past by winning the title five times during the last eight editions. Their success has been so comprehensive during the last two seasons that they start as the favourites this time as well. The secret behind their success is the overall balance of the side and the depth that they carry in each department of the game. In skipper Rohit Sharma, they have one of the most successful batsmen in limited overs cricket and as shrewd a brain as the best in the business. Besides Rohit, they have in their ranks Suryakumar Yadav, Quinton de Kock and Ishan Kishan, all of who can score runs at a brisk pace. The presence of Pandya brothers - Hardik and Krunal - and Kieron Pollard add to the firepower in the middle order, in addition to giving the captain more options while bowling. They have invariably depended on the pace battery of Jasprit Bumrah, Trent Boult and Nathan Coulter-Nile to bring pressure on opposing batsmen, though Rahul Chahar has come good with his leg spin whenever given the opportunities. One player whose performances will be watched with interest by followers of the game is Arjun Tendulkar, who is set to make his debut in IPL this year.
Mahendra Singh Dhoni-led CSK had a disastrous run in IPL 2020, getting eliminated before the knockout phase for the first time ever and finishing at a lowly seventh place in the eight-team competition. It goes without saying that they will be looking forward to setting the record straight. However, the side looks a bit like a “Dad’s Army”, with five of their top players - Dhoni, Ambati Rayudu, Faf du Plessis, Imran Tahir and Dwight Bravo - on the wrong side of thirties. Suresh Raina, who skipped IPL last year, and Ravindra Jadeja, who had a poor season, would be looking forward to making amends. The pace bowling department comprising Lungi Ngidi, Sam Curran and Shardul Thakur appears to be distinctively stronger than the batting line-up which looks bereft of any big-hitters. They will be relying heavily on Krishnappa Gowtham, their star buy during the auctions, to come good with the bat.
In a surprising development, DC named Rishabh Pant as their skipper once it emerged that Shreyas Iyer would not be playing in the championship. One expected that the mantle would fall on Ajinkya Rahane, who led the national side with elan and panache during the Test series in Australia. Delhi side has a strong batting line-up with Shikar Dhawan, Prithvi Shaw and Steve Smith, besides Pant and Rahane, while Marcus Stones can be relied upon for some lusty hitting in the end overs. Their bowling department- both spin and pace- possesses depth and variety with the presence of Ishant Sharma, Kagiso Rabada, Chris Woakes, Ravichandran Aswin and Axar Patel.
KKR had finished fifth in the last two editions of the IPL. The Eoin Morgan- led side will be relying on tried and tested customers such as Shubhman Gill, Sunil Narine, Varun Chakravarty, Andre Russell and Dinesh Karthik to give sustenance to their campaign this time also. The progress of Shivam Mavi and Prasidh Krishna, two promising fast bowlers who have the potential to go far, will be observed closely by followers of the sport.
SRH have performed consistently well during the last five years, never failing to reach the knockout phase even once and winning the trophy on one occasion. They have such high voltage performers with the bat as skipper David Warner, Johnny Bairstow, Kane Williamson, Jason Roy and Manish Pandey. Rashid Khan, the brilliant leg-spinner from Afghanistan, spearheads their bowling where he is supported by Bhuvaneswar Kumar, T Natarajan and Jason Holder in pace section and Shahbaz Nadeem and Mohammed Nabi in spin department. Wriddhiman Saha lends stability behinds the stumps besides contributing handsomely with the bat when required to do so.
One of the biggest mysteries of IPL has been the failure of RCB to clinch the title even once till date. On paper, Virat Kohli-led side looks the one most equipped to challenge the reigning champions as they possess firepower in batting and variety in bowling. AB de Villiers, Kohli, Glen Maxwell and Devdutt Padikkal are capable of evoking fear in the minds of opposing bowlers. Their bowling department has some of the best performers in contemporary cricket in Mohammed Siraj, Yuzvendra Chahal and Washington Sundar, in addition to new recruit Kylie Jameson, on who they spent a fortune of Rs 15 crore during the auction. Their new recruit Mohammed Azharuddeen, who hails from Kerala, was in the news for his brilliant performances in Syed Mushtaq Ali Trophy and possesses the potential to emerge as the star performer of this edition of IPL.
This brings one to RR and PBKS, the two sides who have not been doing well of late. Sanju Samson will become the first Kerala player to lead a side in IPL, as RR have nominated him as skipper for this season. This side had finished at the bottom of points table in 2020 and would be seeking to come up with an improved show this time around. They have in their ranks big names such as Ben Stokes, Jofra Archer and Jos Butler, besides Chris Morris, their star purchase on who they spent Rs 16.25 crore during the auction held in February. PBKS, on the other hand, are heavily dependent on their top order comprising K L Rahul, Mayank Agarwal, Nicholas Pooran and Chris Gayle, whose lack of consistency seriously affected their prospects during the previous season. During the auction this year, the franchisee loosened their purse strings substantially to recruit Jhye Richardson and Riley Meredith, two relatively unknown Aussies, to bolster the fast bowling department and lend support to Mohammed Shami. Murugan Aswin and Ravi Bishnoi are their leading spin bowlers while pace bowler Ishan Porel is one with plenty of promise.
It would be foolhardy to predict a winner before the tournament kicks off as very little separates the sides and each one of the eight teams is capable of winning the title. In the interest of good competition, one would like the stranglehold of MI at the top to be broken by a side that has not yet won the title. Though my heart would love to see Sanju holding aloft the trophy on May 30, my mind tells me that Kohli stands a better chance to do so. If I were a betting person, I would end up placing most of my money on MI and may be a little each on SRH and RCB!
Before one concludes, a word about Dhoni. Keeping true to his enigmatic self, the former Indian captain stayed elusive and remained away from the pubic eye after the conclusion of the last IPL. He will turn 40 in July and does not have too many years of cricketing life ahead of him. Since he has announced his retirement from other forms of the game, IPL remains his only avenue to perform. His past record tells us that he will keep his plans close to his chest and inform the rest of the world only at the precise moment he considers it fit to do so. It is the fond hope of millions of fans of the game in our country, including this writer, that Dhoni is given a farewell that matches his stature and contributions to the game.
Dhoni who led the country to three major title triumphs in international cricket deserves a handsome sendoff from the arena to whose success he has contributed substantially. It will be a great shame if he is to leave the field with his head hung low as the skipper of a side relegated to the bottom half of the points table. Let us hope that Dhoni hits peak form during IPL 2021 and gives the spectators one final treat, both behind the stumps and in front of it, to sign off a magnificent career.
(The author is a former international umpire and a senior bureaucrat)