The never-ending speculations about Mahendra Singh Dhoni’s impending ‘last dance’, Virat Kohli’s endless pursuit of an elusive silverware and Rohit Sharma’s customary nonchalance are things that make the IPL starting Friday a heady cocktail of cricket and entertainment.
Megastars Dhoni, Kohli and Rohit have been the IPL’s driving force in the past 15 seasons, getting the cricket crazy Indian fans hooked on the event for nearly two months every year.
As it enters the 16th season, innovations introduced in the form of potential game changer like the ‘Impact Player’ rule, DRS on wides and waist-high no balls, and two broadcasting giants locked in an ugly war of ‘TV vs Digital’ act as ingredients garnishing the mouth-watering dish, which will be devoured by millions for more than 50 days.
However, the product will remain the driving force and players the main stakeholders, as the likes of Dhoni, Kohli and Rohit set the narratives for their respective franchises with amazing fan bases.
Nearing 42, Dhoni has defied the law of diminishing returns when it comes to his manic following among CSK fans, who thronged the Chepauk to see their ‘Thala’ hit towering sixes at his spiritual home.
They say it will be his last year in the ‘canary yellow’ jersey, but when it comes to MSD, never say never. Even Rohit agrees with that, and won’t be surprised if his “captain” continues playing till 45.
Having finished outside the play-offs in 2022, Dhoni would like to equal Mumbai Indians’ record with five titles, and he knows how to get the best out of the resources available at his disposal.
He will have Ben Stokes in his roster to give him the firepower in batting — in powerplay and at the back-end.
Devon Conway and Ruturaj Gaikwad both understand the grammar of IPL cricket and Ambati Rayudu with the willow and Deepak Chahar with the white Kookaburra have all been there and done that.
CSK have never been a grooming school. There it’s more about the finished product or those in whom the skipper sees the potential, like he saw in Simarjeet Singh last year, or someone like Matheesa Pathirana, who could be an ‘Impact Player’ if the CSK begin with three foreigners. Stokes, Moeen Ali and Conway look sure-shot starters as of now.
For Rohit, it will be a season in which he would like to sing the redemption song. Rohit has a casual exterior, but scratch the surface, and he can be as intense as anybody, and being the most successful skipper in the history of IPL, losing isn’t an option.
Before last year, Rohit never knew what it feels to be the wooden spooner. This season however, Mumbai Indians appear to be the team to beat, at least on paper.
A lot will depend on the skipper’s own batting form and the two marquee men in Ishan Kishan and the world’s No. 1 T20 batter Suryakumar Yadav, who would like to brush off the three first-ball ducks against Australia recently as an aberration in an otherwise sterling journey.
Jofra Archer’s presence does boost the pace attack, but Jasprit Bumrah’s absence, to some extent, nullifies the advantage.
But what MI is doing is to prepare a team for the next five years with young guns like Dewald Brevis, Tim David, Cameron Green, Tilak Verma, Hrithik Shokeen and Kumar Kartikeya set to serve them for the longest time. This core will be a formidable one in the years to come.
Just like Dhoni and Rohit, Kohli has landed up in every IPL with fire in his belly, but the rub of the green hasn’t gone his way.
He has had a 973-run season, in 2016, something that will be difficult to surpass even in these day and age where the shelf life of records is too less. He has played a few finals, but as far as winning the title is concerned, the IPL has had a fickle relationship with one of India’s greatest batters.
He is no longer the skipper and is probably in the best mental phase that he has been in the past three to four years.
The hunger is intact, but the desperation isn’t there. The swagger remains, but the aggression is no longer there to be found.
With Michael Bracewell, Glenn Maxwell and Dinesh Karthik ready to do the heavy-lifting, Kohli will be free to play his own game and also help skipper Faf du Plessis in putting his best foot forward.
This season holds special significance for Hardik Pandya. Having led Gujarat Titans to title triumph in only their inaugural year, the 16th IPL will be a platform for Pandya to soar higher and higher with bigger ambitions.
With coach Ashish Nehra for company, he would want the Rashid Khans, Mohammed Shamis and the Shubman Gills to maintain the tempo of last year from start to finish. An encore would certainly make him Rohit’s heir apparent in the ODI format post the World Cup.
The only tactical shift is the absence of Lockie Ferguson and the jury is still out on whether trading him to bring in Shivam Mavi was a good choice or not.
For Aiden Markram, it will be an onerous task to lift a perennially under-performing Sunrisers Hyderabad.
However, the composition is better compared to previous years with talented Indian players like Mayank Agarwal, Rahul Tripathi and Abhishek Sharma in their ranks. Glenn Phillips and Harry Brook are among some top overseas batting recruits.
However, bowling remains a worry with Umran Malik, now well studied by analysts, and Bhuvneshwar Kumar past his prime. A lot will depend on whether SRH are able to use their fourth foreign player as per conditions. There is Marco Jansen with his left-arm seamers and Adil Rashid with his wrist spinners.
Punjab Kings under Shikhar Dhawan is another team that has never believed in continuity and never got results since their runners-up finish in 2014.
They have kept on changing captains, unceremoniously dumping coaches after one bad season, and the team never had any stability. This time they have got Sam Curran in excess of USD 2 million dollars.
A good start is key, but not getting Liam Livingstone (injury), Kagiso Rabada (national duty) in the first couple of games could upset the team’s tempo.
Save Arshdeep Singh, the Indian pace unit lacks quality and the PBKS could again be out of the play-off race. The team simply doesn’t inspire confidence and the composition indicates lack of proper homework.
KL Rahul is having a nightmarish 2023 and a good IPL can raise his profile which has been on a downward spiral despite him being a top performer in the league. Rahul’s captaincy has been devoid of any tangible improvisation and his style of run gathering is archaic.
LSG have a balanced team and in Gautam Gambhir a tactician par excellence, one who could safely be called the non-playing captain. The presence of utility players like Krunal Pandya, Deepak Hooda and Ayush Badoni in the middle-order adds a lot of depth, while Mark Wood’s 150 click thunderbolts will be a nightmare for the opposition.
Nicholas Pooran, who was paid an astronomical Rs 16 crore, would look to justify that billing after a forgettable last season with SRH.
When it comes to remote-control captaincy, there can’t be a better example than KKR head coach Chandrakant Pandit, who will have to do all the planning and plotting on behalf of Nitish Rana, who will be leading a side that isn’t looking very strong in the absence of regular skipper Shreyas Iyer.
In fact, Andre Russell and Sunil Narine’s form will dictate how far KKR progress.
Ditto for Delhi Capitals, who will find it difficult to have anyone get remotely close to Rishabh Pant’s impact, even though David Warner wouldn’t mind winning a second IPL trophy.
Amid all the chaos in some teams, Rajasthan Royals look the most sorted outfit. The world’s most dangerous T20 hitter Jos Buttler, wily wrist spinner Yuzvendra Chahal, and the best cricketing brain, R Ashwin, will look to ensure that the legend of skipper Sanju Samson grows exponentially.