IPL appetiser before main course of T20 World CupSeptember 19, 2021
The restart of the Indian Premier League (IPL) doesn’t feel like a restart at all. It does not feel like the second half of a tournament of two (forced) halves. But like a different tournament altogether, an un-hyped sequel, a related but different product altogether, without the narrative arcs of catharsis and escapism that had prefaced the prequel.
The first part is a hazy memory, made to look more distant by the intervening sport-filled five months. In this span, India lost the one-off World Test Championship final, reset and prevailed in a nail-biting Test series in England, and if you veer away from cricket, clasped their first-ever Olympic gold medal in athletics. The time-lapse of 144 days looks longer than it is.
Apart from the points table and stats board that serve as reminders of the past, it is, practically and fundamentally, a fresh tournament. The venues are different, some of the teams wear different looks, all of them have to start anew, reacquaint themselves to the mood and tempo of the most challenging franchise-T20 tournament. Some players are flying straight after gruelling Test matches, some from The Hundred tournament in England, and others from hibernation. And before they get warmed up to IPL-2021, Version 2.0, it’s nearly over — 30 games are break-necked into 27 days.
What has not changed is the lens through which IPL has been viewed. The lens of the World Cup. What they would see, or want to see through the glasses, though would be different. Back in the summer, it was an audition of sorts for the World Cup. Teams and strategies were semi-formed, there were spots up for grabs, a wider pool of players to be watched, assessed and analysed. It was a platform for a new star to burst forth, an avenue for out-of-form veterans to restore their touch, and needless to say, acquire some familiarity with the conditions (though India in May and October could be vastly dissimilar). In the April-May instalment, the England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB) had encouraged most of its T20 regulars to compete in the IPL, even if it meant missing out on games against the touring New Zealanders, or a chunk of the series in India before that, because of the looming T20 World Cup. Every team wanted every IPL-contracted player of theirs to be in India.
Five months on, with all teams having filtered their squad, the IPL assumes the purpose of a dress rehearsal, or an extended, competitive warm-up. Like an ATP tournament before the Grand Slams, or a pitstop to check the fuel and gear of a race car.
Players going to the World Cup would look to adapt as much as they could to the conditions, gather local expertise of pitches, climate and conditions, see how fine-tuned they are, gauge what would work and what might not, what lengths or what strokes could reap the maximum rewards, and study some of their prospective adversaries. Familiarising with venues where they could play a bulk of their matches could give players and teams a discernible edge in the World Cup.
It helps that teams play at least a couple of games at every venue, so in effect when the World Cup arrives most of the players will have experienced playing on most surfaces. Though pitches for a particular game could be different, the difference would not be enormous. Sharjah has the flattest pitch and shortest boundaries, not coincidentally the most high-scoring venue of all. Hence, batsmen here would fancy the aerial route more than at others. Abu Dhabi tends to get sluggish towards the back-end of tournaments and has the largest ground dimensions. It’s where spinners would be the most dangerous, while fast bowlers would have a bit of a breeze to work with. Dubai is the slipperiest and bounciest of the surfaces in the Emirates, the groundsmen leave a bit of grass, which has facilitated movement with the new ball. Hence, fast bowlers have (relatively) enjoyed bowling on this ground than the other two.
The possibility of gaining first-hand knowledge pleases South Africa coach Mark Boucher. “They’ll be picking up bits of information about playing in those conditions that will really get them ready for a big tournament and if they manage themselves well and get some good time in the nets and get used to facilities, it will stand us in good stead,” he said recently.
Some believe it would level out the playing field too, more so as the Emirates had hosted the league earlier too. So feels Australia all-rounder Glenn Maxwell: “Probably makes it a little bit easier for there not to be as much of a home ground advantage. For the IPL to be there, to have a lot of international players that are potentially going to be in that World Cup over there playing, I think it’s probably levelled the playing field a fair bit.”
But even in the perceived absence of home advantage, India seem perceptibly advantaged. First, all of their squad players are expected to start every match. It cannot be said of others, some of whom even if they are undroppable for their country, are dispensable for their franchise, and often lose out in the juggle of overseas players. For instance, Sunrisers Hyderabad’s Jason Holder, or Delhi Capitals’ Shimron Hetmyer and Steve Smith. Moreover, the roles of India’s personnel for the franchises are more or less the same as they are for the country. KL Rahul and Rohit Sharma are openers for their country and club, Jasprit Bumrah is the death-bowler for both India and Mumbai Indians. Hardik Pandya would stride out for late-over blitzes, Ravindra Jadeja would apply the middle-over choke. Their acts for the country would be an extension of their franchise role.
It might be the case for many overseas players — some of their roles vary. For example, Delhi Capitals would expect Smith to be more explosive than he could be for Australia, for whom he is the stabiliser (by T20 metrics) around whom bigger hitters like David Warner and Glenn Maxwell thunder. Holder opens the bowling for West Indies, searching for early wickets, while for Sunrisers, he delivers the stock bowler act. Role-acquaintance in this format, for athletes of the highest pedigree, is often overstated, but the power of subtle factors can’t be understated either.
Yet, most national coaches and players would be delighted at this prospect of watching their players locked in a competitive tournament just ahead of the World Cup on the same set of grounds. By the time they assemble for the World Cup tilt, they already have a core in the groove, aware and acclimatised to the conditions, match-fit and match-ready. Burning out too soon is not a fear either, as six-seven games would not leave much emotional or physical toll on them, even for the fast bowlers. It could, thus, pave the path towards an open, intense and high-quality World Cup.