T20’s desert safari

This may not exactly be a ‘1001 Arabian Nights’, but for sheer drama both the IPL and the T20 World Cup should offer some magic between the twilight and midnight hours.

Going strong: Mumbai Indians players during a practice at the Sheikh Zayed Cricket Stadium in Abu Dhabi. The defending champion will be eyeing yet another title.   -  PTI

The Twenty20 space is not just about sky-scraping big hits juxtaposed against wily bowlers. It is also a realm which throws up that eternal sporting dilemma: club or country? These diverse threads are evident through the various T20 avatars — bilateral series, the ICC T20 World Cup and franchise driven entities like the Indian Premier League (IPL), Big Bash or the Caribbean Premier League.

Over the next two months, up until November 14, these different perspectives will find dynamic expression upon the desert sands of the United Arab Emirates. First up is the remaining part of the IPL, which was stopped midway earlier this summer as the coronavirus pandemic raged across India and the quest for potable oxygen and the attendant trauma affected innumerable lives and families. Deemed an insensitive show-pony then, the IPL belatedly ground to a halt before finding a second wind now in the coastal air across West Asia.

The IPL will resume on September 19 and draw to a close with its final in Dubai on October 15. Immediately, the T20 World Cup will commence with its qualifiers on October 17 before the established teams stride onto the turf through the Super12 stage from October 24. The summit clash will be held on November 14. This combined T20 bonanza, thanks to adjacent schedules, also has a common Indian spine. The T20 World Cup is being conducted by India but hosted in the UAE as the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) was wary of COVID-19 back home.

Tough path ahead: Rajasthan Royals’ Director of Cricket, Kumar Sangakkara, gives some tips to and Shreyas Gopal during a practice session in Dubai. Rajasthan is currently fifth in the standings and has to do really well to make it to the play-offs.   -  PTI

There is another umbilical cord that links the two star-dust events. And, for that, you have to step back in time and gaze at 2007. It was a year in which India moved from indifference to admiration vis-a-vis T20s. Long-maned, muscular striking M. S. Dhoni’s uber-cool strategies helped India win the inaugural ICC World T20 (now labelled as the T20 World Cup) in South Africa.

It proved to be a tipping point for the willow game’s commerce and to its soul that usually wavered between Tests’ languid prose and the tap-dance of One Day Internationals. The T20s drew in a new demographic of fans and rekindled corporate interest. The BCCI sensed an opportunity and intended to monetise it with the franchise-based city-specific teams through the IPL, which was launched with fanfare in Bengaluru’s M. Chinnaswamy Stadium on April 18, 2008.

Cricket was never the same thanks to the abridged thrills under lights during the Indian summer and whopping money on offer. From that moment to now, the wheel has come a full circle with the championship that unveiled T20s’ possibilities and the IPL that it inspired, stepping in as Siamese Twins feeding off each other’s energy. It wasn’t supposed to be this way but with the pandemic altering schedules, cricket is set for a breathless rush and gargantuan hype spilling over two months.

The IPL, as a stand-alone exposition has enough heft, but this time around, it will also be seen as a lengthy appetiser to the main-course that will surface through the T20 World Cup. Individual teams, be it a five-time champion like Mumbai Indians or a yet-to-triumph outfit like Royal Challengers Bangalore, may have their own private goals but within that matrix, players will also have their personal benchmarks inexorably tied to the subsequent ICC showpiece — the T20 World Cup.

Dhoni, competing in the IPL as the Chennai Super Kings skipper, will subsequently don the role of mentor for India in the T20 World Cup. Meanwhile Virat Kohli, yet to lead RCB to an IPL title or India to any significant ICC silverware in limited-over formats, will have his own yardsticks to pursue. The fact that both events are being held in the UAE, will aid in firming up plans with regards to personnel as the conditions remain the same.

READ: Shakib Al Hasan: IPL participation will help Bangladesh in T20 World Cup

The Indian squad for the marquee ICC event, is scattered across the IPL units and the duels across Dubai, Abu Dhabi and Sharjah, will hold the players in good stead when they step into a tournament, which they last won just once in 2007. The same exposure would be there for stars from other countries too, especially those from the West Indies, Australia and to a lesser extent South Africa, England, New Zealand and Sri Lanka. The West Indies team for the T20 World Cup is a veritable who’s who of IPL with players of the calibre of Kieron Pollard and Chris Gayle being part of the mix. It is no wonder that the West Indies has won the trophy twice and is the defending champion.

World Cup favourite: The West Indies team for the T20 World Cup is a veritable who’s who of IPL with players of the calibre of Kieron Pollard and Chris Gayle being part of the mix. It is no wonder that the West Indies has won the trophy twice and is the defending champion.   -  AFP

 

Many England stars may have pulled out from the IPL, including Ben Stokes, but its skipper Eoin Morgan will be leading Kolkata Knight Riders. The World Cup winning captain, would be obviously jotting down points, that would come in handy when he shifts back to the England shade after four weeks. Meanwhile, Kane Williamson, New Zealand’s legendary chief, would helm Sunrisers Hyderabad and behind his favourite line — it is what it is — lies a sharp brain that would soak up every nuance across the IPL and then use that knowledge when the T20 World Cup starts.

If participating in the latest IPL is deemed as a preparatory drill for the T20 World Cup, a question could arise — does that mean Pakistan would be undercooked as none of its players feature in the IPL due to the geopolitical chasms across the Radcliffe Line? The answer would be a ‘no’ as the UAE has been second home to Pakistan’s international fixtures.

And when we talk about this serendipitous twining of the IPL with the T20 World Cup, there should be an acknowledgment, too, of the stricter bio-bubbles that would be in place especially after the Indian team’s support staff tested positive for COVID-19 during the recent England tour. It won’t be easy for the players to be cooped up, ferried to grounds and to repeat this routine for eight weeks.

READ: Kohli to quit as T20I captain: A brief look at India under captain Kohli 

Recently, former England captain Nasser Hussain said: “Remember, as sports broadcasters, when we did that quarantine last year, after seven days we wanted to scrape off the walls.” For players it could be worse and the pandemic-induced restrictions can have a bearing on their psyches. All this could influence performance when the cricketing globe congregates again immediately after the IPL.

Until then grab that popcorn, sip that bubbly and watch frenzied cricket unfold, first through clubs and then through nations. This may not exactly be a ‘1001 Arabian Nights’, but for sheer drama both the IPL and the T20 World Cup should offer some magic between the twilight and midnight hours.