Life in India has come a full circle in six months. When IPL 2020, delayed due to the pandemic, began in September in UAE, India was registering close to 1 lakh COVID cases per day. Now, when the 2021 season is almost here, the virus is back with an enhanced rage, and cases over the last couple of days have again crossed the 1 lakh barrier. Judging by how COVID affected some other sporting events, BCCI deserves a pat on the back for successfully conducting the league last year.
With success comes complacency. The difference between 2020 and now is in the reactions to the raging virus. Citing the effects on mental health in a bubble, several players have withdrawn from this season, most of them doing so last minute. It is anyone’s guess about how much say the second wave of the pandemic in India had in their decision. In the last week or so, broadcasters, ground staff, coaching staff and even players have tested positive for the virus. Six months back, this would have been a red flag. Now, those at the helm, are singing a different tune.
Let’s talk venues
To ensure an effective movement of players in bubbles, BCCI finalized six venues to hold the games this year. The caravan for the league stage starts at Chennai and Mumbai, then moves to Ahmedabad and Delhi and culminates in Bengaluru and Kolkata. Five of these venues – Chennai, Mumbai, Delhi, Bengaluru and Kolkata are familiar to most of the players. The sixth, Ahmedabad, will be the newly constructed stadium on a pitch that last saw an IPL game in 2015. While the venues are familiar, none of the teams get to play at home, thus throwing a spanner in the works for most of them.
From what we have seen in IPL 2018 and 2019, venues like Bangalore and Kolkata have been high-scoring while the Chennai wicket has been a spinner’s delight. The uncertainty around the behaviour of the pitch in Ahmedabad adds to the flavour of the season. The ground there has six red soil pitches that tend to favour spin and five black soil pitches that are batting-friendly.
The variety that different Indian pitches offer add another variable to a hard-fought tournament. Based on where they play, the variety adds another dimension to their strengths and weakness.
Some teams are lucky by getting to play at venues that favour their squad while for some the fixtures throw up a unique challenge-
Mumbai Indians don’t have a formidable spin attack. The worst balls per wicket record of 30.05 last season is a testimony to that fact. MI will be playing five games in Chennai followed by four in Delhi, the two venues that have historically been low scoring and have preferred spinners. Both their games against the Sunrisers are at these venues who are a force on low-scoring pitches. MI’s first game against the Royal Challengers at Chepauk will be tricky given RCB’s good spin attack. MI have not lost a game at Chepauk since 2011 but will be hard-pressed to keep that record intact.
Delhi Capitals play eight league games in batting-friendly venues like Mumbai and Kolkata which will favour their stroke-makers. Their two games in Chennai are against Mumbai Indians and the Sunrisers. SRH, in particular, will be a handful at that venue. Ironically, DC won’t be too upset about not playing at the Kotla, as they are the only team with a win percentage of less than 50% at home (44.9%)
Sunrisers Hyderabad start with the first nine games on bowling-friendly wickets in Chennai and Delhi. They will relish these fixtures as they have an affinity to tracks that favour the bowlers. Though SRH have never won a game in Chennai but will be happy that they are not playing CSK there. The caravan then moves to Kolkata and Bengaluru for the last five games. It will be interesting to see if they have the firepower needed to succeed at these grounds.
Royal Challengers Bangalore start with three games in Chennai then play seven games at batting-friendly venues like Mumbai and Kolkata. They have many spin options to take advantage of the pitches in Chennai.
Kolkata Knight Riders have a tricky start to their campaign with three games in Chennai, one of which is against Sunrisers, the next is against pace heavy MI and the last against a strong spin unit of RCB. Then they move to batting-friendly venues and smaller grounds that will make life easier for their big-hitters.
Punjab Kings start with three games in Mumbai and end with five games in Kolkata. These are venues that will suit their hitters but can also backfire if the new additions cannot uplift the pace attack that was poor last season.
Chennai Super Kings play five games in Mumbai and end with five more in Bangalore and Kolkata. CSK will have to shed their conservative approach to compete on these tracks. Four games in Delhi between the above fixtures will be on a pitch similar to their home in Chepauk but two of those are against Sunrisers.
Rajasthan Royals play 10 games on batting-friendly venues that will assist their stroke-makers. If Jofra Archer recovers in time, they have the bowling attack for such tracks as well.
To summarize, a few interesting prospects pop up due to the fixtures. There is a challenge thrown at MI’s might on spin-friendly tracks. For SRH, it is a tale of two halves in terms of wickets they play on for SRH. And for CSK, they will have to reassess the way they have played in their more successful years.
With the BCCI president having already declared that the tournament will go on as per the schedule, there is pride at stake. One can only wish that the reputation earned last season remains intact.