The 2020 edition of the IPL was to start on March 29th this year. An ultra-optimistic BCCI postponed it to 14th April after an initial surge of Covid-19 cases in India. What seemed like the inevitable scenario as soon as the pandemic struck, an indefinite suspension then followed.
For a brief period, hardly anybody cared about cricket. In a country where cricket and elections act as a unifier, the virus took precedence in thoughts and conversations.
While taking a toll on human life, the pandemic also had economic consequences. Like other sectors, cricket needed to start soon to avoid large scale pay-cuts and layoffs. Once the ECB gathered courage to get on with what was left of their home summer, talks of the IPL started to make rounds.
The economics behind the IPL made it certain that if professional cricket is possible in the near future, IPL will take precedence over any other tournament. Thus, the ICC T20 World Cup, scheduled for this year, made way for the 13th season of the IPL.
Overcoming the Hurdles
With the pandemic raging in the country, the initial challenge was to find a safer venue for this season. A country with a less freighting virus curve and better facilities to ensure a safer bubble for the players and officials. UAE emerged as a favourable venue as it is one of the leading sporting hubs in terms of infrastructure and has prior experience of hosting the IPL. After hosting a handful of matches in 2014, it now joins South Africa as the country other than India to host the complete tournament.
So far so good. But, the pandemic is not the only atrocity gripping India currently. China’s insensitive muscle-flexing to challenge the status quo at the Sino-Indian border led the Indian Government to ban numerous Chinese apps. The backlash over IPL’s sponsorship with Vivo, a Chinese technology company, started to create murmurs. Before the storm grew stronger the BCCI announced the suspension of its partnership with Vivo by mutual consent.
A month before the start of the tournament, Dream XI snapped the title sponsorship for the 2020 edition. They bought the rights for 222 crores, down 50% from what Vivo pays annually, but still more than five times to 40 crores per annum that DLF paid for the first five years in 2008. Other sponsors like Unacademy, Vi (Vodafone Idea) started entering the scene. Thus, by sorting the economics, the organizers laid another issue to rest.
It was time for the first phase of execution. After a hiatus of six months, it was certain that the players, especially Indian players, will need to start practising earlier than when they might during a regular season. To that effect, teams started arriving in the UAE in August with players acclimatizing to the bubble.
That is when things started to turn for the worse especially for the CSK camp. Deepak Chahar and Ruturaj Gaikwad tested positive for the virus. Suresh Raina opted to return to India due to personal reasons. Harbhajan Singh, who delayed his arrival, announced that he will not be taking part this season. As CSK was to play MI in the first match of the tournament, this led to yet another uncertainty, a delay in finalizing the schedule.
However, with no more bad news, the schedule came out, with the CSK-MI rivalry slated for the opening night as planned. The only barrier now left to overcome is to see through the tournament without any misadventure.
The Conversations Around Spin
Since the announcement of the shift to UAE, there have been conversations around the teams that are better suited for the conditions. The focus is on the teams that have better spin options and batsmen better equipped against spin. A look at the batting run-rate in T20s in UAE since 2018 highlight the need for these discussions –Since 2018, the average run-rate against spin in UAE has been the second-lowest: 7.06. This will also be prominent as only three venues - Abu Dhabi, Sharjah and Dubai – will host the entire tournament. With frequent use of the same surface, pitches tend to become slower and difficult to score. Hence, teams with better spin options and batsmen adept to play on slow pitches will fare better.
However, as Deep Dasgupta pointed out in his article - the impact of spinners will vary from venue to venue. At Dubai, which will host the most back-to-back matches, there are five surfaces to play on as opposed to the usual two or three. This ensures pitches get a breathing space and decelerates wear and tear. Abu Dhabi has five strips as well with consecutive matches on the same day only once. The third venue, Sharjah, is a higher-scoring venue than the other two. Having said that, pitches especially in Dubai will start to slow down by the second half of October if not sooner.
Indian players draw a huge crowd wherever they play. Players like MS Dhoni and Virat Kohli draw attention even during practice sessions. In addition to players being rusty after a long break, they will also have to adapt to playing under no crowds. For players like Kohli, who draw so much energy from crowd support this might take some time to get used to.
Whenever the IPL had to shift outside the country, it has produced unexpected results. In seasons when they have featured, CSK were not one of the finalists only when a country other than India hosted some matches or the complete tournament. This suggests how open the IPL is when franchises, who build their teams according to Indian conditions, face a sudden change in itinerary.
The year 2020 taught an entire generation to expect the unexpected. As for fans of the IPL, the next couple of months will lead to cricket coming back into their conversations.