There was a distinct, curiously insular world view presented by the UAE-leg of IPL 2021: one that reaffirms a much-needed sense of normality after more than a year spent indoors, trying to escape the creeping sense of dread that has been spreading across the world due to COVID-19. The return of fans, albeit limited in number, was once again a reminder that the crowd is not merely a sound effect. Cricket venues across England and Australia have already welcomed fans and now IPL has opened up to spectators just when we were reluctantly adapting to watching it without them and we are grateful for it.
The second leg of IPL — after the initial tournament in India was cut short because of an outbreak of the virus inside the bio-bubble — started well, got better in the middle, and by the end, was exhilarating. It gave a glimpse of the lip-smacking depth of India’s pace and spin bowling reserves. There were the nerveless chases, the athletic catches, and the irresistible finishes that make T20 and IPL a big hit.
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There was also the generous dollop of ‘expect the unexpected’ as five-time champion Mumbai Indians couldn’t find a way to win and Virat Kohli stepped down as Royal Challengers Bangalore (RCB) captain after being at the helm for eight years. And Chennai Super Kings (CSK) returned to familiarity, with captain M. S. Dhoni reminding why he’s among the greatest white-ball captains of all time as he led his side to its fourth IPL title with a win over Kolkata Knight Riders (KKR) in the final.
But the second leg of IPL-14 was more than just four weeks of slam-bang cricket and consistent fluctuations in fortunes. It was also a dress rehearsal for the T20 World Cup in the UAE and Oman.
The T20 World Cup is being played in two rounds. The first round features eight teams, divided into two groups. Sri Lanka, Ireland, the Netherlands, and Namibia are placed in Group A while Group B comprises Bangladesh, Scotland, Papua New Guinea, and Oman.
The Super 12s
Each team plays every other team in its group once. The top two sides from each group advance to the next round, referred as the Super 12s, where they link up with the eight top-ranked T20I sides. Again, teams will be divided into two groups — Group 1 and Group 2 — and they will play each of the others in their group once. The top two teams from each group will progress to the semifinals.
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India announced its T20 World Cup squad less than two weeks before the second half of IPL 2021. Spinner Ravichandran Ashwin has been called up to India’s T20 squad for the first time in four years, while former India captain Dhoni, who retired from international cricket last August, was appointed to “provide support and direction” to the Indian team management led by head coach Ravi Shastri. Shardul Thakur, who was earlier in the list of India’s standby players, has replaced Axar Patel in the squad of 15. Among the notable absentees are Shikhar Dhawan and lead leg-spinner Yuzvendra Chahal.
The Hardik conundrum
As the eight IPL franchises disband and the Indian players refocus on their pursuit of a second T20 world title, there can be no avoiding the blunt fact that the second leg of the IPL threw up rather more questions for the Indian think tank than it answered. If ever there was a prime example of the precarious tightrope upon which India’s chances rest, Hardik Pandya’s stint with Mumbai Indians was it. Hardik didn’t bowl a single ball in the five games he played during the UAE leg, which could be a concern for India heading into the T20 World Cup.
Elsewhere, Sunil Narine took 16 wickets at 6.44 and was pivotal to KKR reaching its first IPL final since 2014. Earlier, Narine had picked up 12 wickets in 10 games at the Caribbean Premier League, at an economy rate of 4.37. His absence from an already star-studded West Indies World Cup line-up is conspicuous and has evoked plenty of quizzical reactions. But speaking from the team’s base in Dubai, Kieron Pollard, the West Indies captain, indicated that there would not be any changes to the 15-man squad, barring injury or illness.
Meanwhile, Australia, South Africa, and New Zealand are chasing their first T20 World Cup trophy. Incidentally, the captains of all three sides are recovering from injuries — Aaron Finch from knee surgery, Temba Bavuma from a broken thumb, and Kane Williamson from a dodgy elbow — but all three expect to be 100 percent fit before the Super 12 stage, which starts from October 23. Curiously, Faf du Plessis, who amassed more than 600 runs for CSK this season, will not be part of South Africa’s World Cup squad. du Plessis capped off his IPL 2021 campaign with a match-winning 86 in the final.
No Stokes and Archer
Defending champion England will be without talismanic all-rounder Ben Stokes and pacer Jofra Archer. Stokes has taken an indefinite break from cricket to manage his mental health while Archer is recovering from an elbow injury. The form of skipper Eoin Morgan in IPL 2021— 133 runs in 17 matches at 11.08 — compounds England’s concerns. However, it’s still a side brimming with match-winning power-hitters and will be a force to reckon with.
All teams will keep a close eye on the slow, low UAE pitches. Sunrisers Hyderabad captain Williamson, who was the second-highest run-getter for his team in the UAE leg of IPL 2021, is wary of the conditions but feels they could change at the T20 World Cup. “They’ve varied a lot actually,” Williamson said. “Even a lot compared to what we experienced last summer when we had the whole tournament [IPL 2020] here [in the UAE]. Something to be aware of; something certainly to prepare for and try and make those adjustments as quickly as possible.
“But then we’ve had other days, in the IPL when we turned up to Abu Dhabi, the wicket looked very similar, but there was sort of an 80-run difference in what was perhaps a par total.”
Former champion Pakistan, meanwhile, comes into this World Cup having endured team reshuffles. But Babar Azam’s men are perhaps the most familiar with two (Dubai and Abu Dhabi) of the three venues in the UAE. Since the 2016 World T20, Pakistan has won all 11 T20Is they have played in the UAE, beating the likes of the West Indies, Sri Lanka, Australia, and New Zealand. Pakistan was scheduled to play seven T20Is before the World T20. But New Zealand and England pulled out of their tours because of security concerns, robbing Pakistan of valuable match practice. The only cricket Pakistan players were involved in was the National T20 Cup, which ended on October 13. Ramiz Raja, the PCB chairman, has called on his team to take out the frustrations of the players on the field when they play at the World Cup.
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The T20 World Cup, last played in 2016 in India, was originally scheduled to be held in Australia in 2020. However, with the COVID-19 pandemic bringing the global cricket calendar to a halt, the ICC postponed the event, deciding that India would host it in 2021 and Australia in 2022. The ICC sees the T20 World Cup as a medium to expand the game. But the current format of the T20 World Cup doesn't allow each associate nation to test its skills against the top sides in the world, thereby stymying the overall growth of those sides and the sport at large.
In June this year, ICC, in an attempt to develop the game globally, announced that from 2024, there will be a 20-team T20 World Cup.
They will be divided into four groups of five each with the top two entering the Super Eights stage. The T20 World Cups, scheduled for 2024, 2026, 2028, and 2030, will have 55 matches each.
For now, even as ICC deals with major obstacles impeding the ability to grow cricket, it is set to organise its first major tournament since the pandemic began.
The Decision Review System (DRS) will be in use for the first time in a men’s T20I tournament. Each team will get a maximum of two reviews per inning. The winner will receive US $1.6 million, the runner-up $800,000, and the losing semifinalists $400,000 each.
After a gap of five-and-a-half years, there’s a T20 World Cup again. In the age of fast-food cricket, if IPL offered a serving of T20 bites, a frivolous snack if you will, the World Cup is the main course: a big, filling T20 extravaganza with helpings of tension, and the promise of crowning glory. Let the feast begin!
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