It’s almost here. Modern cricket’s marquee tournament, the Indian Premier League, will commence this Saturday, 19th September in the United Arab Emirates (UAE).
A cracking auction, some rambling trade-offs, an (ongoing) pandemic, some bio-bubbles, and a few international retirements later, fans around the world will finally see their favourite superstars in action in the most bizarre circumstances.
Here’s the quintessential drill: 8 teams, 60 matches, 2 months, 1 trophy and millions of rupees in accolades. Every team – Chennai Super Kings, Mumbai Indians, Kolkata Knight Riders, Royal Challengers Bangalore, Rajasthan Royals, Kings XI Punjab, Delhi Capitals, and Sunrisers Hyderabad – will compete with each other twice for a space in the top 4 in the league table.
These 4 will then battle it out in 2 Qualifiers and 1 Eliminator to reach the Final. The fixtures for the last 4 matches are yet to be released by the BCCI, rest can be found here.
Sponsors for starters; and everything else including the fact that no team has changed its name to something wincing. Yes, Delhi fans are still irate by ‘Capitals’.
Unlike in India with at least 8 grounds on the repertoire, this year’s 56 league matches will be played only on 3 grounds – Abu Dhabi, Sharjah, and Dubai.
Arch-rivals, and the tournament’s most successful teams, CSK and MI will get the ball rolling on the 19th in Abu Dhabi. Dubai will host its first game on Sunday when DC will lock horns with KXIP followed by the third match on Monday between SRH and RCB.
Almost all of these matches will be played behind closed doors unless the conditions improve and some spectators are allowed later in the tournament – as Sourav Ganguly alluded to, and as he always does.
Teams will stay in their own bio-secure bubbles with cast-iron protocols: no handshakes, high-fives, sparring, etc. Players are set to get tired by the persistent for swabbing of long, tenuous pipes in their snoots throughout the tournament. Around 20 thousand tests will be carried out cumulatively on every member and support staff of every team.
There will also be minimum possible contact among the members and different groups. Coaches and Physios will be hawk-eyed for any symptom or a breach in the protocols. Donning a mask will also be mandatory. For the team hotels as well, from no-touch doorknobs to the AC temperature, every detail has been attended to in the SOPs.
The tournament in itself will be longer-than-usual. The customary window is 49 days for the IPL. This year, this has been extended to 53 days, least because of the pandemic precautions.
There will also be more evening games than normal - with an hour-early afternoon start and a half-an-hour-early evening start into the bargain. This is done with an eye on the sweltering weather in the UAE, and to make the most of the Indian prime-time respectively.
In India, every team gets to play half of their league matches at their home grounds. This not only provides them a better chance in favourable conditions but also frees a window for pitch restoration and repair.
Furthermore, the 2020 auction’s stand-out buys were mostly made considering the 7 home games. Pat Cummins, Ajinkya Rahane, Glenn Maxwell, and Chris Morris were all suited better to their new Indian home grounds.
With this edition nut shelled into 3 venues, this plan now stands watered.
The Dubai International Cricket Stadium (DICS), Sheikh Zayed Stadium, Abu Dhabi and Sharjah will host 24, 20 and 12 league matches respectively.
Sharjah is among the smallest grounds in the world, Abu Dhabi is just opposite, and Dubai is also on the shorter side but falls in between the two. Both Abu Dhabi and Dubai are slow and sluggish wickets and will aid spinners more than pacers. Sharjah on the other hand is flat and aids brisk scoring.
Based on the ground dimensions, to find an Indian IPL double, Abu Dhabi is closest to Jaipur, Sharjah to the Chinnaswamy Stadium, and Dubai is the most similar to Hyderabad.
In the 14 T20Is hosted in Sharjah, batting average has been 19.69, average run rate 7.29, and highest recorded score 215. For Abu Dhabi, the 200 mark has been breached only 1 time in 45 matches with average run rate being 7. Dubai has seen 4 200 plus scores but the average run rate has still lingered around 7.1.
Albeit everyone now might be expecting the spinners to be on cloud nine with the conditions suiting turn, pacers can’t be looked upon so easily. When the 2014 IPL was temporarily shifted to the UAE in 2014, 4 of the top 5 bowlers were speedsters.
High-scoring matches will be far and few between and there might be a dearth of hundreds. We can safely expect the average first innings score to be 165-170 in the first half and falling below 150 as the tournament proceeds.
A stark difference is conspicuous when one compares the win percentage in India and the UAE according to the toss. In the earmarked UAE grounds, the cumulative win percentage while batting first is 33% since 2016 in all T20 matches. In India on the flip side, batting first win percentage is 53.6% since 2016 in the totality of all IPL matches.
We can also expect dew to play a major part in the tournament - the final nail for “bowl first”, at least in the first half of the competition.
Before we discuss specifically the nuts and bolts of every team, two things standout. For one there’s an ongoing limited-overs series in England against Australia. Both the English and Australian participants of IPL will at least miss their first games with their respective teams. There was some contention on if the 6-day mandatory quarantine rule for these players should be relaxed for they are coming directly from a biosecure bubble. The UAE authorities have clarified that this will not be the case.
Crucial players like Aron Finch, Steve Smith, Pat Cummins, Eoin Morgan, David Warner, Johny Bairstow, and many more will miss at least one - in CSK’s case, two - matches for their sides. We can expect some debuts and some unique combinations from these games.
These guys, after almost 30 days in the bubble, will travel straight away to the UAE for more isolation. This effectively means they will be in no personal contact with the outside world for over 3 months. They will only meet and interact with their teammates, the management, and for shorter durations, their opponents. This brings to our second issue.
It doesn’t take a psychologist to understand the mental toll of these dull and dreary environments. The indelible effect was visible in the first such experiment. In the Wisden Trophy in England in July, the West Indian captain, Jason Holder admitted that his side was “worn out” as the 3 test series progressed.
“It's tough to constantly get up, you're here, you open your curtains and you just see the cricket ground. You're not hopping on the bus as you normally do." He had said to the local newspapers.
Jofra Archer, the X-factor fast bowler for England and spearhead for the Rajasthan Royals attack also confessed a similar effect.
"I'll be honest with you. I'm not sure how many more bubbles I've got left in me for the rest of the year.
"I haven't seen my family really since February and it's September now. The IPL is going to take up most of October. In November we go to South Africa; well, hopefully, we go to South Africa. That only leaves me with a few weeks in December for the rest of the year.” Archer was quoted saying.
It is almost impossible to manage to divert attention from the game while being within the stringent protocols. This is the reason why most of the franchises are taking psychologists and mental health specialists as a part of the management. It stands to reason that the team which manages the mental aspect better, will fare better in the long run.