Additional reporting by Shashank Kishore.
IPL 2021 will be played entirely in India, starting on April 9, with the final set for May 30. The tournament will be played across six cities: Ahmedabad, Bengaluru, Chennai, Delhi, Mumbai and Kolkata.
Chennai will host the tournament opener, in which defending champions Mumbai Indians will face Royal Challengers Bangalore. The playoffs and the final will be held at the Motera in Ahmedabad.
In a significant change from previous IPLs played in India, the organisers have decided to conduct all games at neutral venues. The league phase will be played behind closed doors "to begin with", BCCI secretary Jay Shah said in a media release on Sunday. A final call on if and when spectators will be allowed, Shah said, will be taken at a "later stage" of the tournament.
ESPNcricinfo understands the BCCI is utilising the IPL, a multi-team event, as a dry run for the men's T20 World Cup, which is slated to be held in India in October-November this year, and thus wants to ensure all precautions are in place accordingly.
Eleven double-headers, less travel
This season, the afternoon games - there are 11 double-headers lined up - will begin at 3.30pm IST, while the evening games start at 7.30pm, both 30 minutes earlier than usual start time for IPL games played in India.
Each franchise will play at four out of the six venues during the league phase, which includes 56 games. Chennai, Mumbai, Bengaluru and Kolkata will host 10 games each, while Delhi and Ahmedabad will host eight each. The first 36 league matches will be split across Chennai, Ahmedabad, Mumbai and Delhi, while the next 20 will be played in Bengaluru and Kolkata in May - this is because elections in West Bengal will be held late March to late April, while, in Bengaluru, it is understood that the floodlights at the M Chinnaswamy Stadium are being replaced.
"The fixtures of the tournament have been mapped in a way that every team will travel only three times during the league stage, thus reducing commute and minimising risk," Shah said.
Venues - the key reason for the delay in announcing the schedule
Immediately after successfully hosting IPL 2020 in the UAE, the BCCI had said it would be hosting the 2021 edition in India subject to the state of the pandemic. The UAE remained a back-up, but having conducted the Syed Mushtaq Ali Trophy in India in January, the BCCI was confident of playing the IPL in the country.
However, the franchises were concerned as the IPL had not disclosed the final venues with roughly a month to go for the tournament. The reason behind the franchises' concerns was they had to book hotels, secure visas for overseas players, figure out logistics, all within the framework of the Standard Operations Procedures required to maintain the tournament's biosecure bubble.
With Covid-19 infections on the rise in several places in India, both the franchises as well as the IPL were sceptical about going with the usual routine of eight venues. As per the original plan, Mumbai, Pune and Ahmedabad were meant to host the entire tournament. However, the rising number of Covid-19 cases in Maharashtra, the most severely affected state in India, forced the IPL to rethink. Then, in the second plan, Mumbai was set to be left out as a venue.
This week the IPL governing council chairman Brijesh Patel and the IPL chief operating officer Hemang Amin met former BCCI president Sharad Pawar, who is head of the Nationalist Congress Party that shares power in Maharashtra government.
The meeting, which was also attended by representatives of the Maharashtra Cricket Association, was called to get the nod from the Maharashtra government for the IPL to run in the state, which has imposed a cap on gatherings even for outdoor sport. The IPL wanted Pawar to allow Mumbai to host, and also to discuss the whether the grounds could be filled to a certain capacity.
Why no crowds?
The BCCI wanted to play it safe. This, despite the fact that it had opened the final three Tests of the four-match series against England to 50% capacity. The key reason behind this decision was that the IPL is an eight-team event, as opposed to a bilateral series where two teams can be more easily managed in a biosecure environment.
Also, with many of the IPL venues listed, crowds can be in the vicinity of the dressing room and there is always a danger of safety protocols being breached, which could endanger the entire bubble.
There is also the upcoming T20 World Cup, which the BCCI will be hosting, to keep in mind. The abrupt suspension of the Pakistan Super League due to Covid-19 cases within the bubble will offer "learnings", ICC chief executive Manu Sawhney had said, as the global governing body readies for the World Cup that will feature 16 teams. The final schedule for that tournament, including the venues, could be shaped by how the IPL goes.
Nagraj Gollapudi is news editor at ESPNcricinfo