The carnival's back in town
It may not be everyone's favourite tournament but an indicator of the IPL's status as the biggest annual competition in the cricketing calendar is the reduced number of bilateral series this season. While there have been plenty of calls for an official window, which the ICC has repeatedly ignored, the only series being played in April is the bottom-of-the-table clash between Zimbabwe and Bangladesh. And the next series is England v New Zealand, beginning in mid-May. Sri Lanka have reshaped their scheduled full tour of the Caribbean to a tri-series also involving India starting June, freeing up the Chris Gayles and Lasith Malingas to play the entire IPL, window or no window.
The line-up of controversies ahead of the tournament, several of which are only tangentially related to cricket, underlines the significance of the IPL in India. In Maharashtra, the opposition party doesn't want IPL matches to be held in the state due to the drought in region, claiming each venue will use up 2.16million litres of water during the tournament. In Karnataka, Kingfisher Airlines employees have threatened to disrupt IPL matches in protest at not receiving their salaries from Vijay Mallya, owner of Royal Challengers Bangalore. In Tamil Nadu, the chief minister has barred Sri Lankan IPL cricketers from playing in Chennai, after growing political tensions over the treatment of ethnic Tamils in Sri Lanka.
For the players, this season becomes particularly important since (almost) all of them go into the auction pool next year. That will mean additional pressure on the players, who will be well aware that a decent season this time could make them millionaires over the next few years. Just ask Saurabh Tiwary, whose 419 runs in 2010 earned him an enormous US$1.6m the following year. He has done little of note in the two seasons since, but continues to earn that fat salary from Royal Challengers. A lacklustre season, especially if you are an overseas player, and you could end up watching IPL 2014 from your couch at home.
Unlike the everything-changes season of 2014, this year fans will at least be able to easily identify with their teams as the core of most teams remains unchanged, and with mainly low-profile signings. Plenty of little-known cricketers earned big bucks - including Sri Lanka spinner Sachithra Senanayake, Australia fast bowler Kane Richardson, South Africa allrounder Chris Morris, Australia allrounder Glenn Maxwell - and there will be plenty of interest to see whether any of them can repeat the star-turn that Sunil Narine provided after pocketing a bagful at the 2012 auction.
The glaring exception to the trend of small names being bought was Ricky Ponting, the Australian legend who returns to the IPL after a four-year absence, and in a delicious twist will captain fellow great Sachin Tendulkar and his supposed bête noire Harbhajan Singh. With Anil Kumble also in as Mumbai's team mentor, most of the central characters of the Bollyline controversy of the 2008 Sydney Test will share a dressing room this season.
Ponting is one of the retired old guard that most fans can only watch at Twenty20 leagues like the IPL. A year after Adam Gilchrist said, "I have played my last game of cricket," he is back leading Kings XI Punjab for another season. There's also Muttiah Muralitharan, looking to prove he has as much guile two years after his international retirement as he did in his pomp. Sourav Ganguly may have finally hung up his boots but Rahul Dravid is still around, more than a year since he last turned out for India.
Dravid is in charge of Rajasthan Royals, who are once again expected to find the going hard. As in the previous season, at the start of the tournament there seems to be two tiers of franchises in the competition - four out of Chennai Super Kings, Delhi Daredevils, Mumbai Indians, defending champions Kolkata Knight Riders and Royal Challengers are expected to progress from the league phase, with Royals, Kings XI Punjab, Sunrisers Hyderabad and Pune Warriors generally predicted to be also-rans.
Warriors are the most likely of the second lot to put up a serious challenge, bolstered by the return of Yuvraj Singh and the acquisition of New Zealand's Ross Taylor and Sri Lanka spinner Ajantha Mendis, though they will miss the experience of their first buy at the auction, Michael Clarke. Warriors could challenge Daredevils from the first group, as the loss of big-hitters in Kevin Pietersen and Taylor have weakened a team that has typically been among the favourites every year.
There have been plenty of changes in the IPL since tens of thousands of Kolkata Knight Riders fans thronged the streets of Kolkata to celebrate victory last season, several of which showcased how big a draw the IPL remains. A new title sponsor has come on board, shelling out $72m for five years, nearly twice what the previous sponsor had paid; Deccan Chargers are no more a part of the IPL after defaulting on payment, but new owners were found for the franchise soon after, sold for a healthy $80m.
Though the IPL continues to pull in the crowds, the television ratings in the past couple of years - while still very healthy - haven't matched the heady highs of the Lalit Modi years (TVRs of 3.45 in 2012, compared to 3.51 in 2011, well below the 5.51 reached in 2010). Two years ago, among the first lines of commentary in the IPL was about how the tournament had been instrumental in India winning the World Cup. One of the final lines of commentary of the recently concluded home international season before the 2013 tournament was Ravi Shastri informing us how the unexpected and unprecedented whitewash of Australia had "set India up nicely for the IPL".
While the breathless haste with which the IPL followed India's World Cup win hurt the tournament in 2011, India's appalling overseas run in England and Australia hit the ratings in 2012. This season, with the mood in India on the upswing after the Australia victory, the organisers will be hoping for a similar upswing in the ratings.
It still remains popular enough for Bollywood to consider holding back big releases till the end of the IPL season, but the league still has plenty of problems, with several franchises and franchise owners facing financial difficulties. In December, the Sahara group, owners of Pune Warriors and major sponsors of the Indian team, were ordered to pay back Rs 24,000 crores ($4.42billion) to their investors; Vijay Mallya's companies, owners of Royal Challengers, have been weighed down by his debt-ridden airline; in February, Rajasthan Royals were fined Rs 100 crore ($18.77 million) for violating India's foreign exchange laws, while both Royals and Kings XI Punjab were involved in a long legal battle with the organisers after they were threatened with expulsion for violating the IPL contract agreement.
Despite those troubles, the IPL is set to dominate the cricketing landscape for the next couple of months, with its usual mix of cricket, Bollywood and hype.
Siddarth Ravindran is a senior sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo