Players and staff celebrate the return of the tournament to its usual format for the first time in four seasons
Shashank Kishore and Nagraj Gollapudi
"I had goosebumps."
Tilak Varma was eight years old when he saw on TV a packed Wankhede bursting into song - AR Rahman's 'Maa Tujhe Salaam' - soon after MS Dhoni hit that six in 2011.
Eleven years later, Tilak was in the middle, experiencing first-hand the joy of playing in front of the Wankhede crowd. He can't wait to do it again.
Rajat Patidar has often imagined what it will be like to walk out to chants of 'RCB, RCB' and 'ABD, ABD' at the Chinnaswamy. Last year, he had a small taste of the adulation when he won the Ranji Trophy there. He's injured right now, but he's counting down the days until he can walk out into that sea of red for the very first time.
Devon Conway has only come across Chennai's love for their thala on social media. On his third trip to India, he'll finally see it in real time.
As a teenager fresh from a victorious Under-19 World Cup campaign in 2018, Shivam Mavi saw 60,000 fans at Eden Gardens roar in jubilation as he picked up his first-ever IPL wicket, a Kolkata Knight Riders legend, Gautam Gambhir, when he was playing for the Delhi Daredevils. Having now been signed by Gujarat Titans, he might expect the roar to be a lot louder. After all, their home base can seat 120,000 people.
These are just some snippets of the excitement among players, and most definitely among the fans, as the IPL returns to its traditional home-and-away avatar for the first time in four years.
Chennai Super Kings have thrown open their anbuden for the fans to watch the team train. It's been an emotional return; this will be their first full season at home since 2019, with their beloved thala having mortality thrust onto him.
Remember last year's presentation after CSK's final game when Harsha Bhogle asked Dhoni about the legacy he will leave behind and him responding, "still I've not left it behind"? The fans hang on to every single world he says. Yet, there's realisation this could perhaps be Dhoni's last IPL season, which is adding a bit of chaos around the Chepauk. On Monday, the security personnel at the ground were unable to control excited fans from making a beeline outside the stadium entrance.
This is Dhoni mania. He can still saunter into stadiums and generate kilowatts of energy with nothing more than a simple wave.
Over the weekend in Bengaluru, 30,000 fans turned up to watch RCB's 'OGs' reunite. Chris Gayle and AB de Villiers were inducted into RCB's Hall of Fame at a glitzy event. The third member of this trio, Virat Kohli, retired their jerseys.
The Knight Riders too have been big on such promotions, not least because their co-owner Shah Rukh Khan is a celebrated public figure and a beloved superstar actor. Every season has begun with a special opening night at Eden to celebrate their fans, and this year was no different.
"That's the beauty of playing at home, the crowd is your 12th man," KKR CEO Venky Mysore tells ESPNcricinfo. "But more important is the vibe it creates from the time you land in Kolkata you will see from the airport to Eden the whole Knight Riders brand is visible. You can't hide.
"When I land there people tell me: 'Venky Sir, iss baar jeetna hain' (This time we have to win) And you feel good. That is the kind of sentiment people have towards us and that's how connected they feel."
Titans, the defending champions, had a memorable first experience of playing on home turf last year. It ended in crowning glory when they beat Rajasthan Royals in the final in front of over 100,000 fans.
The demand for tickets is expectedly massive despite the early onset of what many believe will be another harsh summer. Within three days of them going on sale, about 70,000 tickets were already lapped up for Friday's season opener between Hardik Pandya's Titans and Dhoni's Super Kings.
Arvinder Singh, the COO at Titans, is excited at the prospect of returning to Ahmedabad, which is the world's largest cricket stadium capacity-wise. "There are expectations from us based on what we achieved last year," he says. "And our fan base has been growing exponentially, too."
Singh is also enthused at the level of engagement on their social media. Previously CEO at Kings XI Punjab and Gujarat Lions, he wants the Titans fans to have a wholesome experience and feed the team with positive energy. To which end, the Titans have tied up with local transport authorities to ensure fans can travel to and from the ground without any hassle. With a metro station adjacent to the ground, the Titans have liaised with municipal authorities in Ahmedabad to reduce the frequency between trains from 15 to just seven.
"Usually, the last metro train leaves at 8 pm (from the station near the ground), but they have made an extension with the last train leaving at 1.30am on match days," Singh adds.
Inside the ground, fan zones have been created for pre-match entertainment to tempt people to come in early and make the most of their live-match experience.
"We are looking at ways to ensure the fans get to their seats hassle free, they have easy access to simple things like water quickly and possibly by the seat, will the toilets be clean - these things are important."
As important as it is to create off-field buzz, much of it can be sustained only if teams go out and actually win games. And that's far from easy, especially in the IPL.
RCB's Harshal Patel, for example, knows he has to hit the ground running. His blockbuster season when he picked up 32 wickets in 2021 came in Dubai and Abu Dhabi, fueling his journey to the India cap. But he understands that the margin for error is considerably less in the "unforgiving" Chinnaswamy. After all, the average bowling economy rate at this venue is the highest of 14 that have hosted 30 or more IPL games.
"There are a couple of ways in which it can [help playing at home] because after playing seven games in Chinnaswamy if I do well there, I'm going to be pretty much confident to bowl on any surface at any venue," Harshal says with a chuckle.
"That venue is perhaps the most difficult venue to bowl in, so whenever you go outside, you know the boundaries are always going to be bigger than [Chinnaswamy], you know the wicket not going to be as great as Chinnaswamy. Probably Wankhede is the other wicket which is good for batters."
Plans will also depend on surfaces. Harshal is likely to encounter excellent batting tracks in Bengaluru, especially in the first half where RCB play six home games out of seven.
In CSK's case, it's the opposite. They play five of their first eight games away from Chepauk, which gives them the comfort of banking on 'spin to win' during the back end of the season when playoff spots are up for grabs.
Punjab Kings have it far worse, with a travel schedule unlike any other. They do not have two consecutive home games until their last two league matches on May 17 and 19, both of which will be in Dharamsala and not their main home ground in Mohali. Player fatigue could be a massive factor this IPL.
With teams having to play across different conditions, Jaydev Unadkat, who will be representing Lucknow Super Giants this time, believes strategies will have to vary and that adds a new element that hasn't seen for the past three seasons.
"It will actually make it interesting because if you are playing on the same pitch in the same conditions, as was the case in the past three seasons, most of the teams stuck to same set of combinations," he explains. "There was not the usual chopping and changing which was the case previously in home-and-away format because the conditions are different. Every team will need to be smart to put forth a balanced squad in all departments. Home-and-away is what makes the IPL what it is."
Over to the 10 teams then to make the 2023 season a spectacle.