The desert sands in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) may not instantly offer cricketing symbolism in an Indian context. But prod your memory and two searing images emerge. The first, a heart-breaking one as Javed Miandad launched a match-winning last-ball six off Chetan Sharma in the 1986 Austral-Asia Cup final at Sharjah.
The second, a delirious string of desert-storm nights as Sachin Tendulkar single-handedly stunned Australia with his two blazing hundreds at Sharjah while India seized the 1998 Coca-Cola Cup.
Into this bouquet of remembrances, another chapter will be added as the Indian Premier League (IPL) commences at Abu Dhabi’s Sheikh Zayed Stadium on Saturday night with defending champion Mumbai Indians taking on last year’s runner-up Chennai Super Kings (CSK). Originally slated to start on March 29 in India, the IPL had to be paused as the coronavirus pandemic swept across the globe.
With the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) looking at an alternative window, a gap emerged when the ICC Twenty20 World Cup in Australia was postponed from its earlier stipulated October-November time-frame.
UAE as the IPL host became inevitable as various Indian States are still emerging from lockdown. Meanwhile, the athlete has gingerly stepped onto the turf, fringed by empty stands, as social-distancing is the essential norm and bio-bubble the latest word in our lexicon. Sport has made a comeback although fans can sample it only on television.
The IPL and UAE had a tango in the past, as the Emirates hosted a part of the tournament while India had its general elections in 2014. But much has changed ever since a virus incubated in the wet markets at Wuhan in China.
The IPL officials and UAE authorities have done all they could so that pandemic-protocols are followed but a tournament stretching for 53 days, featuring eight teams, 60 matches and two other venues — Dubai and Sharjah — can test logistics. During the quarantine stage, CSK had two players testing positive for COVID-19 and other squads too may have their issues while the IPL marches towards its November 10 climax.
Despite these apprehensions, with its congregation of overseas stars ranging from Kane Williamson to Steve Smith, the IPL remains a top-dollar event. And for Indian icons like Virat Kohli and Rohit Sharma, respectively leading Royal Challengers Bangalore (RCB) and Mumbai Indians, the next two months offer another platform to reveal their prodigious batting skills. For the nostalgically inclined, it is also time to savour M.S. Dhoni while he helms CSK. The former India captain had recently retired from international cricket.
Besides the rivals facing off in the opening skirmish, the tournament offers another shot at hope for the remaining six that includes former champions Kolkata Knight Riders, Rajasthan Royals and Sunrisers Hyderabad as well as title-aspirants RCB, Kings XI Punjab and Delhi Capitals.
Temperatures pushing 40 degree Celsius, the threat of a virus and the absence of an audience could stifle adrenaline but the players are happy to be back in the sporting realm, after a hiatus.
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