A desert sizzler to begin with

Mumbai Indians, the defending champion. The team has the best of practice facilities for its players.-PTI

Over the years, despite several ups and downs, the IPL has continued to attract the cream of cricketers from across continents. Few players have been able to resist its charms as followers of the shortest format flock to grounds or refuse to let go of TV remotes, writes A. Joseph Antony as the seventh edition of the event kicks off.

The desert can be a cruel place. The seventh season of the Indian Premier League (IPL) taking off from the dust bowls of Dubai, Sharjah and Abu Dhabi will give a new spin to a tournament which is never short on twists and turns.

For starters, it should be the tougher of the two phases with temperatures expected to hover around 50 degrees Celsius in the United Arab Emirates. Action in the five double-headers spread out over the three kingdoms is set to unfold from 1330 hours local time. Players will have to brave the scorching searchlight that the sun will turn out to be when the celestial body is at the peak of its powers.

As Sun Risers Hyderabad (SRH) mentor V. V. S. Laxman put it, “It will be a long haul. Mental and physical fitness of players will be most important.” The first fortnight should be the toughest in the searing heat. Not so for the wristy wizard, who believes conditions in both the UAE and India should be similar.

Amidst the vast stretches of sand dunes, the three stadia will stand out as oases, where avid fans, mostly hailing from the sub-continent, will partake of the delights. The three venues are compact with limited seating capacities compared to grounds elsewhere. The Sheikh Zayed Stadium in Abu Dhabi, where the seven-team T20 competition will get under way, can seat 20,000, while those in Dubai and Sharjah can accommodate 25, 000 and 16,000 respectively.

Over the years, despite several ups and downs, the IPL has continued to attract the cream of cricketers from across continents. Few players have been able to resist its charms as followers of the shortest format flock to grounds or refuse to let go of TV remotes. Like its predecessors, this edition of the event holds out much promise too, with each side packed to the brim with some of the very best exponents of the art.

The T20 World Cup in Bangladesh, coming as it did just weeks before the IPL, will only accentuate the latter’s aspirations to become the showpiece of the sport, just as the English Premier League attracts the most eyeballs to the beautiful game.

“The IPL this time will be quite different,” feels T. Suman, member of the now-defunct Deccan Chargers team that clinched the crown in the IPL’s second edition in South Africa. “But for Chennai Super Kings, Rajasthan Royals and Mumbai Indians, who have retained four to six of their core players, the other sides will have new sets of players. Sun Risers Hyderabad for instance has made drastic changes in the composition of its domestic players,” the attacking batsman said.

Further, fans will also need to get used to the new faces. “The UAE leg will be an exercise in getting the combinations right,” he said. Conditions in the two countries are not very different, with everything else the same. “International players, not attuned to such heat conditions, may find the going tough, but since our Indian summers are almost as hot, our cricketers would not face problems,” the swashbuckler felt.

Left out of this league, Suman had longed to be part of SRH. He nonetheless backs it to take the title this time. “Sun Risers Hyderabad has a very good side and if you notice, the champions have been those teams with good bowling units. SRH has bowlers, who can not only contain the batsmen but are wicket-takers too. The slow pitches in the Arabian peninsula will suit the spinners, especially Amit Mishra and Karn Sharma,” said the ex-Pune Warriors batsman.

SRH is blessed with the best in the business. “Dale Steyn is by far the fastest bowler in the world,” said Suman, who didn’t have the good fortune of playing alongside the tattooed tearaway but instead had a torrid time facing him as an opener or top order bat when turning out for Mumbai Indians. Few can match the South African who comes most alive at the death, single-handedly rescuing almost every side when games go down to the wire.

“Its top order combination comprising Aaron Finch, David Warner and Shikhar should be the most explosive. Not only are they aggressive, this trio can be positively destructive,” said Suman, no stranger to the role himself.

Naman Ojha, Tom Moody, Krish Srikkanth, V. V. S.Laxman and Irfan Pathan share a light moment at the Hyderabad Sunrisers' press briefing ahead of IPL 2014.-P.V. SIVAKUMAR

“The players who will be missed the most, especially in this edition of the IPL, will be Sachin Tendulkar and Rahul Dravid,” said the part-time bowler, who had his share of fine performances mostly with the bat on the just concluded domestic circuit.

As a veteran of three sides, viz. Deccan Chargers, Mumbai Indians and Pune Warriors, which side did he find the best to be a part of. Pat came his reply: Mumbai Indians. “Their practice facilities cannot be matched by any other side. They have specialists to take care of each aspect of the game, be it fielding or batting or any other area. The ultimate thing about the Mumbai Indians side is that it is like a family, with each member made to feel very special,” said Suman. Talk on the defending champion understandably veers round to Rohit Sharma. “He can win matches on his own,” said Suman, who was his team-mate both for Deccan Chargers and Mumbai Indians. “As an intelligent cricketer, he makes a very good captain too, carrying out such timely bowling changes that they invariably land the spoils,” he observed.

“As a batsman, he’s a great finisher. I remember in South Africa, Deccan Chargers required 24 runs in the last over of a match. Not one to be overawed by the situation Rohit pulled it off,” said Suman, an ardent admirer of the Mumbai stylist.

Other stalwarts on whom the spotlight will surely be turned are India and Chennai Super Kings skipper M. S. Dhoni, R. Ashwin, their new team-mate Brendon McCullum and Kevin Pietersen, who has several points to prove. Others in fine touch are Yusuf Pathan, Gautam Gambhir and Sunil Narine, while Kieron Pollard’s recent showing in the Caribbean will be bad news for the bowlers.

The number of India players in a side would definitely have a bearing on the outcomes, simply because they have mastery over sub-continental conditions. They should have a greater impact on the goings-on than the international stars the public gets easily enamoured by.

In the UAE leg, the Indian diaspora, of varied hues, equally addicted to the game as their countrymen back home, would be appreciative of quality cricket, regardless of who is playing. So no side will enjoy a home advantage, especially in the first phase.

The spectre of scams and scandals that blighted the game in the region that had gained in notoriety may not rear its ugly head this time, thanks to increased scrutiny and concerted efforts to clean up the stables.