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The IPL is back in India - can the buzz keep the Covid cloud at bay?

All you need to know about the 14th edition of the biggest cricket tournament outside of the World Cups

Shashank Kishore
Shashank Kishore
The Mumbai Indians are the most successful team in the league's 13 editions so far  •  BCCI

The Mumbai Indians are the most successful team in the league's 13 editions so far  •  BCCI

The Indian Premier League (IPL) returns to its home shores after a season in the United Arab Emirates due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Over the next 50 days, some of the best cricketers worldwide will go head-to-head in what could be the last time we're seeing it in its current eight-team avatar. Here's all you need to know about the 14th edition of the biggest cricket tournament outside of the World Cups.
Okay, so the IPL returns to India. How big a deal is it?
Yes, it is big, because the IPL is as much an economic activity as it is a sporting event, contributing millions of dollars to the cricket ecosystem and also to India's hospitality and travel industries - all of which are currently on shaky ground because of the pandemic. The tournament returns after a year's absence and, though the crowds will be missing, there will be a buzz just to see most of the world's best Twenty20 players in action.
But there's a cloud over the tournament, right?
Yes, India is in the midst of a second wave of infections, averaging almost 100,000 new cases every day for the past week. The six tournament venues - the biggest cities in India - are among the worst hit, with Mumbai alone reporting more than 10,000 new cases each day now. Some of these cities have either announced or are contemplating some form of a lockdown to prevent a further rise in cases, but the IPL itself is likely to be exempt from these restrictions. The need for air travel at various points in the tournament adds to the risk factor.
How are the teams dealing with this?
All the matches are going to be held in bio-bubbles. This means the general rules announced by the state governments across the country won't apply in its same form for the IPL. Teams are all staying in secured wings of a hotel or a resort across different cities and have set protocols and testing procedures that are carried out regularly to ensure safety. They won't have any contact with people from outside these specified zones. Yet, several positive cases at various camps over the past week indicates it isn't as foolproof as envisaged. It has also underlined how big a challenge it could be to ensure the IPL goes ahead smoothly, amid the rising cases.
But if India is amid a second wave, why have it here at all? Is there a bigger picture that we are missing?
India is slated to host the ICC T20 World Cup this October-November, and organising a smooth IPL, amid the rising cases and bio-bubble challenges, is seen as a trial run for that tournament, which will have 16 teams participating.
What about its importance from a cricketing standpoint for India?
The IPL could have a massive influence on the make-up of India's final squad for the global tournament at home in October-November. But for several players like Shikhar Dhawan, R Ashwin, Sanju Samson, Navdeep Saini, Ishan Kishan, Kuldeep Yadav, R Ashwin it will be particularly important, either because they have been left out of India's white-ball plans recently or haven't been able to consistently make the playing XI.
Alright, let's talk about the teams. Who looks the strongest?
It's hard to look past the Mumbai Indians, five-time winners, the most successful team in the league's 13 editions so far. But also watch out for the Chennai Super Kings, who will be eager to come storming back after missing the playoffs last time - it's the only time they've not finished inside the top four. Also, this could also possibly be the last time their captain MS Dhoni, also a victorious World Cup-winning Indian captain, plays for them. Dhoni, who is pushing 40, retired from international cricket last year, and with franchises set to rejig their squads for the next three years, this season could be Dhoni's swansong - though the franchise's CEO doesn't think so.
Does the league have any overseas captain?
Six out of the eight teams are captained by Indians. The Kolkata Knight Riders have the experienced World Cup-winning England captain Eoin Morgan at the helm, while the Sunrisers Hyderabad will be led by Australia's David Warner.
How many teams are yet to win the IPL?
Three - all of them strong this time. The Royal Challengers Bangalore, led by Virat Kohli, have finished runners-up three times. The Punjab Kings, formerly Kings XI Punjab, narrowly missed out on a title in 2014, but haven't come close since. The Delhi Capitals made their maiden final last year, where they were pipped by Mumbai.

Shashank Kishore is a senior sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo