Since its launch in 2008, the Indian Premier League has largely remained a summer-fix, with its share of pulsating thrills and big money. But these are extraordinary times when a virus has extended its stifling grip across the globe for more than a year and while COVID-19 rages, through a second wave in India, the IPL is back with its 14th edition that will commence at Chennai’s M.A. Chidambaram Stadium on Friday with defending champion Mumbai Indians taking on Royal Challengers Bangalore. The previous tournament, a much-delayed one due to the pandemic, had concluded at Dubai on November 10, last year. After a five-month gap, the latest version rolls in with its share of 60 matches in a schedule that stretches all the way to May 30. Meanwhile, the virus continues to influence logistics and with bio-bubbles being the norm, the matches will be initially played at empty venues. The other new development is the idea of neutral venues, a move necessitated by the need to reduce travel so that every squad stays in a specific city for at least a fortnight. With cities such as Hyderabad, Mohali and Jaipur missing out as hosts, it was felt that their respective home units — Sunrisers Hyderabad, Punjab Kings and Rajasthan Royals — needed a level playing field and that was achieved by propping up neutral venues for all rivals.
It is a thread that goes all the way to the play-offs and final, which would be held in Ahmedabad, a city that does not have an IPL outfit. If the immediate context is about playing sport in the times of the coronavirus, the larger goal for the players would be to also use this IPL as a stage to finesse their skills well in time for the Twenty20 World Cup in India during October-November this year. The current build-up that included hotel quarantines, gradual training and news about a few players and support staff testing positive for COVID-19, may not have been ideal but all the squads are keen to get on the turf and play even if excited fans and their acoustic-support would be missed. Besides its obvious stardust, the IPL is equally about an unsung player grabbing attention and winging his way into the national squad. T. Natarajan and Suryakumar Yadav, to name just two, have done that in recent times. And for the nostalgically inclined, it is also a space to watch the likes of M.S. Dhoni and AB de Villiers plying their wares. Neutral grounds that negate home-advantage and a virus in the air do make a strange mix but this is the new-normal for an event that has previously adjusted to three general elections and a couple of overseas deviations.