In these coronavirus times, when handshakes are suppressed and a stranger’s sneeze causes palpitations, sport and the arts are needed even more as essential balms. Into this mix, throw in the Indian Premier League (IPL) with its high-octane action, team owners oscillating between agony and ecstasy, and fans glued to the television while missing the familiar cacophony of packed grounds, and life, despite its current limitations, does seem a wee bit normal.
The IPL’s 13th edition, held across Dubai, Abu Dhabi and Sharjah in the United Arab Emirates, finally concluded with a lukewarm summit clash on November 10. It was a joust that reaffirmed Mumbai Indians’ (MI) iconic status as the most consistent team in the league’s history, a tag previously owned by Chennai Super Kings (CSK). And even if Rohit Sharma’s men put it past the latest challenger at the high table – Delhi Capitals – in a climax devoid of thrills, the tournament had its charms, especially after its early set of matches whipped up multiple Super Overs.
Yes, England hosted the West Indies and Pakistan in bio-bubble venues in Manchester and Southampton as Old Blighty lent oxygen to a game that needed its share of sun, grass, the odd damp cloud and maybe a rainbow. Yet, the sport needed a Dolby Digital spirit. It had to feel king size. And it is that aura that the IPL offered copiously in West Asia despite the empty stands, while the prerecorded artificial crowd sounds were not a patch on a full-throated venue packed to the rafters.
Into this realm of Covid protocols and elbow brushes and closed-fists rubs, the IPL’s latest version dawned on September 19 with CSK defeating MI. The carnival had commenced with an upset as the defending champion ate humble pie. But MI, with five titles to boot counting the latest, can never be discounted, and the Mumbai franchise gained strength and poise while the opposite happened to CSK.
Cut to the final, an undercooked one at that, and MI walked the big talk. Trent Boult pitched it short instead of the expected fuller length, spinner Jayant Yadav was employed early, while Jasprit Bumrah was held back for a while, and a surprised DC lost three early wickets, including a prolific Shikhar Dhawan and Ajinkya Rahane. At 22/3 in 3.3 overs, the surprise entrant into the final had dug itself into a hole. Though skipper Shreyas Iyer (65 not out) and Rishabh Pant (56) stitched together a partnership, it was bound to be a rough ride.
Delhi Capitals captain Shreyas Iyer led from the front, chipping with the bat, blending pragmatism into his captaincy while also being a prankster pulling team-mates’ legs. The franchise finally offered its city something to cheer about — a maiden appearance in the final and a good run in the league phase. – Sportzpics / BCCI
DC finished with 156/7 in 20 overs, a target well within MI’s reach considering its top-heavy batting order backed by deep middle-order riches. Sharma played the lead act to perfection, essaying a 68, and the promising Ishan Kishan clattered an unbeaten 33, and MI were home by five wickets with eight deliveries to spare. It was the crowning glory on a remarkable campaign despite that false note in the opener against CSK and understandably a swirl of emotions whirred within the MI dugout. Team owner Nita Ambani accidentally photobombed some of the players while they were speaking to television analysts, such was her state of joy, while Sharma discreetly wiped damp eyes with his sleeve.
Title No. 5 had to be savoured in all its glory, and having successfully defended its title, MI increased its distance over CSK in the consistency and championship sweepstakes. MI’s five is well ahead of CSK’s three, and while the former has a settled look, with the right mix of youth and experience, the latter seems mired in a time warp. It didn’t help CSK that Suresh Raina left even before the tournament had commenced citing personal reasons, and the same excuse was offered by Harbhajan Singh, who never turned up.
Kings XI Punjab captain K. L. Rahul (left), with 670 runs, led the IPL charts, and Twenty20’s greatest player Chris Gayle too joined the party. – Sportzpics / BCCI
Despite the advancing summers within its ranks, CSK opted to stick to its core, and with Dwayne Bravo struggling with injuries, M. S. Dhoni had bitten off more than he could chew despite all the captain-cool attributes he abundantly possesses. Plus, he too is in his twilight and he is no Moses parting the water any more. Dhoni will surely influence matches, but the frequency with which he does that is bound to come down, though it is heartening that he will be around in the 2021 season. With him as the leader, CSK has to rope in fresh talent.
MI, champion supreme, got its ingredients right. It had stars for every occasion. In one tight game, Suryakumar Yadav sealed the contest and signalled to his team-mates: “I am there right? So why worry?” Be it Kishan, de Kock, Suryakumar, veteran Kieron Pollard, Hardik Pandya, Bumrah, Boult or even Jayant, Mumbai seemed to find the right nuance at any given point. It had the swag.
Understandably, MI topped the league tally and eventually went all the way to the victor’s podium. Meanwhile, DC (not to be mixed up with the erstwhile Deccan Chargers) finally offered its city — Delhi — something to cheer about — a maiden appearance in the final and a good run in the league phase largely bolstered through the exploits of Dhawan (618 runs) and speedster Kagiso Rabada (30 wickets, the tournament’s highest). Shreyas too led from the front, chipping with the bat, blending pragmatism into his captaincy while also being a prankster pulling team-mates’ legs, especially Stoinis, to all-round laughter. It seemed a happy camp and the performances reflected that as well.
However as DC floundered in the final, one of the commentators quipped: “You need to attend the big dance more if you are to win it one night.” Perhaps this stumble will help DC come back stronger and a clue would reside in keeping its core intact. In its previous avatars, the Delhi outfit often resorted to wholesale changes and that ruined its inherent DNA.
M. S. Dhoni will surely influence matches, but the frequency with which he does that is bound to come down, though it is heartening that he will be around in the 2021 season. With him as the leader, the Chennai Super Kings franchise has to rope in fresh talent. – Sportzpics / BCCI
Among the remaining squads, Sunrisers Hyderabad (SRH) and Royal Challengers Bangalore (RCB) did well to reach the playoffs and then wilted. In a longdrawn championship stretched over seven weeks, momentum, that elusive performance elixir, has to be nursed. Not every team gets that right. RCB, still very much a Virat Kohli-A. B. de Villiers-driven unit, lost steam towards the end, piling up losses, though a playoff spot was long secured and the final implosion put paid to its hopes of a title that has always proved distant.
The bottom half had Kolkata Knight Riders, Kings XI Punjab, CSK and Rajasthan Royals (RR). A wafer-thin degree of points and run rates split these teams and it showed how close this IPL was in terms of overall fortunes. Kings XI, led by K. L. Rahul who with 670 led the IPL run charts, found a late wind and Twenty20’s greatest player Chris Gayle too joined the party. But having started sluggishly, the Punjab team found the concluding ascent a bit too steep. RR scraped the bottom but it also threw up Rahul Tewatia, who, like SRH’s T. Natarajan, caught the imagination. It also emphasised the IPL’s ability to brighten the prospects of unheralded cricketers, who grab their chances.
Cricket surely got its booster dose and the IPL is back. Just that the turnaround time is very limited for the coming summer’s next edition. Hopefully the virus would have waned and the players can have some real applause from the stands for a change.