One hundred and thirty seven days since a deadly COVID-19 second wave across the country and a spurt of cases within the Indian Premier League's (IPL) bio-secure bubble forced an unprecedented suspension of the league, the 2021 edition of the marquee T20 competition is set to resume on 19 September.
Eight teams will compete in 31 games across 24 match days in the UAE to determine the winner of the 14th edition of the league. At the time of suspension on 4 May, last season's finalists Delhi Capitals were sitting pretty at the top, with Chennai Super Kings (CSK), Royal Challengers Bangalore (RCB), and defending champions Mumbai Indians (MI) completing the top four.
The second leg of the IPL would have been business as usual if not for the looming T20 World Cup and the recent development in Indian cricket. Virat Kohli, India's all-format skipper since 2017, relinquished his T20I captaincy on Thursday (16 September), leaving obvious unanswered questions regarding the future of his captaincy at RCB.
While "workload management" has been the stated reason for Kohli's exit, repeated failures to win ICC events, it is safe to assume, must have had a role to play. India last won an ICC tournament in 2013 when MS Dhoni led the side to an unlikely heist at the Champions Trophy in England. That win, secured under the backdrop of the infamous IPL spot-fixing scandal, also sealed Dhoni's legacy as the only captain in world cricket to win all possible ICC honours " Test mace, T20 World Cup, 50-over World Cup, and Champions Trophy.
Kohli, still an unfinished product then, took over leadership duties from Dhoni in Test cricket barely 18 months later, while the latter continued to lead India in limited-overs cricket. India failed to go past the semi-finals hurdle at the 50-over and 20-over World Cups in 2015 and 2016.
Kohli took the reins in the limited-overs format in 2017, and led India to the Champions Trophy final where they fell to Pakistan. Two years later, pre-tournament favourites India crashed out of the 50-over World Cup at the semi-final stage. Presumably, patience was running out with the BCCI. The extent of board's desperation to end the trophy drought can be gauged from the fact that despite a battery of support staff and analysts, Dhoni has been called upon to mentor the side.
Next came the selective leak of Kohli ready to relinquish limited-overs captaincy to Rohit Sharma after the T20 World Cup, followed by BCCI's unsurprising vehement denial. There are also reports of Kohli losing his sway in the Indian dressing room. Not unrelated is the fact that while Rohit, tipped to take charge from Kohli, has led Mumbai Indians to the top of the podium five times, the former has failed to win a single IPL trophy. Should RCB endure another trophy-less pursuit, what will that mean for Kohli, into his eighth year at the helm for his franchise?
It is in this context that the upcoming IPL is destined to be viewed - beyond the histrionics, besides the hysteria.
Form-wise, India would be hoping for their big guns to fire in the IPL and warm-up for the World Cup. Pre-suspension, the ten highest run-scorers in IPL 2021 had six Indians, of which only two " KL Rahul (No 2) and Rohit (No 8) " are part of the World Cup squad. While Rahul has featured among the top three run-getters in IPL in every season since 2018, neither Rohit or Virat have made it to the top five in the said period.
However, it must be noted that the likes of Ishan Kishan, Suryakumar Yadav, and Varun Chakravarthy have donned Indian colours in the recent past thanks to their IPL exploits, and they'll be hoping to hit the right notes once action resumes.
Among the bowlers, barring standby Deepak Chahar (2019) and pace spearhead Jasprit Bumrah (2020), no Indian has finished in top-three in the IPL since 2018, albeit Rahul Chahar, who has displaced Yuzvendra Chahal in the World Cup-bound team, is fourth-highest wicket-taker in IPL 2021 so far, and highest among the spinners.
Chahal, on the other hand, endured a dramatic dip in form in the same edition, and finds himself at the 33rd spot, with just four scalps from seven outings at an economy in excess of eight runs per over.
Just last year, when the entire season of IPL was held in UAE, Chahal reveled in the bigger grounds and slower pitches, and finished the league at the fifth spot among bowlers with 21 wickets, the highest among spinners. Chahar, in the same edition, could manage only 15 wickets from as many games and ended the league outside top-10. Come 2021 though, and the tide has turned completely in Chahar's favour.
Ravichandran Ashwin, out of India's white-ball teams since the 2017 Champions Trophy, will be closely watched too, not least due to the media storm over his non-inclusion in any of the four Tests that India played in England. The wily off-spinner took the field in five of eight games for Delhi Capitals in IPL 2021, but managed just a solitary wicket. It would be interesting to see how young skipper Rishabh Pant uses him in the remainder of the matches.
India open their T20 World Cup campaign against Pakistan on 24 October in Dubai, eight days after the IPL final. Each of the 18 players in the Indian team - 15-man squad and three standbys - are important members of their respective franchises, with Kohli, Rohit, Pant, and Rahul being certain starters by virtue of being captains of their teams.
This, without doubt, puts an immense premium on the fitness and workload management of the players. At best of times, IPL is a relentless examination of players' skills, temperament, and fitness. In times of bubble fatigue and the looming COVID threat, the test becomes unforgiving. Add to it the impending World Cup, and IPL 2021 becomes a true box office material. Let the show begin!