India captaincy, T20 World Cup add spice as 2021 IPL resumes
- Virat Kohli, Rohit Sharma, MS Dhoni and R Ashwin will all be in focus as league kicks off a big season in the shortest format in the UAE.
Exactly a year after IPL was held in the UAE, the T20 league resumes there on Sunday, though in entirely different circumstances. The 2020 edition was all about quenching the thirst for some cricketing action, after normal life was brought to a halt by the pandemic. This time IPL will be played amid the drama in Indian cricket with superstars Virat Kohli, Rohit Sharma and Mahendra Singh Dhoni the central characters.
Kohli’s stepping down as T20 captain post the World Cup in October-November has brought to the fore fault-lines in the dressing room. The right decision may have been taken but the timing threatens to overshadow action on the field.
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Royals Challengers Bangalore (RCB), Mumbai Indians (MI) and Chennai Super Kings (CSK) are the favourites for the play-offs, but the narrative has changed as far as their captains are concerned. It’s more about the roles of Kohli, Sharma and Dhoni with the national team than their IPL sides - Kohli is the captain who is leaving, Sharma is next in line and Dhoni as mentor for the T20 World Cup is expected to do the balancing act during this delicate phase of transition.
Everyone is keen to see how Kohli handles the extra scrutiny on his captaincy and whether it affects his form or galvanises him. RCB, with 10 points from five wins in seven games, are strongly placed to make the play-offs and have played a match less than toppers Delhi Capitals (DC). Kohli’s challenge is to ensure they don’t slip up towards the business end like the last edition when they lost their last five games, including the Eliminator.
He has attributed the first-leg showing to better balance. “If you look at our bowling that’s been our feature, guys coming into bowl at different stages doing the job, and we have that kind of variety in our attack. We have the batting depth as well and bowling options too,” Kohli had said in a post-match chat with the official broadcaster.
One reason Kohli has decided to step down as T20 skipper is to focus on batting. He is the highest run-getter in IPL, but he has had some average seasons. In this edition, he averages 33 with one fifty.
Former India wicket-keeper Kiran More feels ending the T20 captaincy debate will help Kohli focus better. “It will help him in IPL also, RCB are No 2 on the table.”
ROHIT THE LEADER
Defending champions MI recovered from a typically slow start and lie fourth. Sharma’s captaincy record is superb, but his task is cut out. With DC, CSK and RCB having established a decent gap from the bottom four, it is MI that the fifth and sixth placed Rajasthan Royals and Punjab Kings will look to topple in the fight for play-offs.
If KL Rahul can get Punjab Kings to break into the top four, it will add heft to claims that in him India may have a future captain. MI need Sharma to avoid any distraction of being the captain-in-waiting for the India T20 side. MI carry great memories from 2020 IPL in the UAE when they emerged the all-time best T20 team with a flawless run to the title.
With the bat though Sharma had a middling season, scoring 332 runs while leading MI to the title. His international form though has been superb, after his best-ever performance in an overseas Test series in England.
MI are the most successful and dangerous team, a tag CSK will endorse as the UAE second-leg kicks off with a blockbuster clash between the them. CSK set the tone in the first-leg with domineering displays but one of their two defeats came against MI. That last match, played in Delhi before IPL was halted after Covid cases hit many teams, saw MI chase down a mammoth CSK total of 218/4.
CSK will have to put behind the memories of their last campaign in UAE, when they finished seventh. With batting lynchpin Suresh Raina back, this season, they are a settled team. The experiment with Moeen Ali at No. 3 is working and openers Faf du Plessis and Ruturaj Gaekwad are giving them good starts.
While Dhoni is again in the spotlight after becoming the India mentor for the T20 World Cup, he is also the best equipped to handle any distractions. He loves to make a statement and this is an ideal opportunity to set CSK’s record straight in the UAE.
ASHWIN IN FOCUS
At DC, the focus will be on R Ashwin, after his controversial exclusion for the Tests against England and a surprise return to the T20 squad. DC sit atop the table with 12 points and six wins and are boosted with Shreyas Iyer’s return after shoulder surgery. Rishabh Pant though will continue to lead. Shikhar Dhawan will have a point to prove after losing his spot in the T20 team. He is the tournament’s top-scorer with 380 runs. His record in the UAE is also impressive, and became the first to score successive centuries in IPL last year.
Their fast bowlers will be the most keen to play at Abu Dhabi and Dubai. Anrich Nortje and Kagiso Rabada were lethal the last time there. Nortje, 27, bowled the fastest delivery ever in IPL (156.22 kph) against Rajasthan Royals. He bowled the second and third fastest as well - 155.21 and 154.74 kph.
The grounds are bigger, and if wickets at Dubai and Abu Dhabi have the carry and bounce like the last time, DC will look to exploit it. The same can be said of MI’s Jasprit Bumrah and Trent Boult. The contest between Rabada-Nortje and Bumrah-Boult lit up 2020 IPL with the top wicket-taker’s spot changing hands many times. They were the top four wicket-takers with Rabada (30) finishing on top, ahead of Bumrah (27), Boult (25) and Nortje (22).
Among the spinners, all eyes will be on how RCB leggie Yuzvendra Chahal responds. The selectors have taken a big call leaving him out of the T20 World Cup squad with MI counterpart Rahul Chahar picked because he bowls faster.
Chahal has already proved himself in the UAE as the top wicket-taker among spinners the last time with 21 wickets in 15 games. Chahar had 15 off 15.
The Indian leg was highly rewarding for domestic medium-pacers. Harshal Patel (RCB), Chetan Sakariya (RR), Arshdeep Singh (Punjab Kings) and Avesh Khan (DC) donned the lead roles for their teams. They mainly rely on variations and control. On slower Indian wickets their cutters were highly effective as the ball gripped the surface. Whether they can be effective in the UAE will be keenly watched.
Unlike last season when there was little to separate the teams and the qualification race went down to the wire, this time Sunrisers Hyderabad (SRH) and Kolkata Knight Riders (KKR) have a huge gap to narrow. SRH are at the bottom of the table with one win in seven games and KKR have two wins in seven. It’s a big climb down for SRH after last year’s third-place finish. KKR had missed the fourth spot on run-rate.
WORLD CUP BUILD-UP
This IPL also gains importance because all countries with a heavy presence of top players are looking at it as a platform to prepare for the T20 World Cup in October-November. Bizarrely, the ICC event starts after a day at the same venues. The doubt about it being an ideal preparation rises because some of the players play different roles for their franchises and national teams. Former India player, coach and selector, Madan Lal, though said: “There’s nothing to beat match practice. You can only gain in confidence once you go inside the ground and play. They will get to face a variety of bowling attacks. The main thing is your form has to be good and you should be striking the ball well. It will be an ideal preparation and they will be ready when the World Cup comes.”