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An IPL cloaked in a bubble of uncertainty

The caravan returns to India against the backdrop of surging Covid-19 cases and a looming T20 World Cup

India is on the brink of overtaking Brazil to climb to second place on the global list of countries with the highest number of Covid-19 cases. Currently India is inching swiftly towards the 13-million mark. Is India safe then to host IPL 2021, which the ICC is viewing as a dry run for the men's T20 World Cup, which the country is scheduled to host later this year? There is no definitive answer.
The IPL bubble has already proved vulnerable, with a growing number of positive and asymptomatic cases. Uncertainty is the byword for the IPL, which will be played behind closed doors for the second time. The 2020 edition in the UAE was one of the most-watched sporting events globally in the absence of other live content. This time there is much more at stake.
Following are the key points and questions that the tournament organisers, the BCCI, and the eight teams will confront when the 52-day event, set to be played across six venues, begins on April 9 in Chennai.
T20 World Cup - target or distraction?
The IPL is a long-established selection platform especially for the Indian players. With the 2021 World Cup taking place in India, expect not just the India selectors but also those from other international teams to take learnings from this IPL into their plans for the marquee tournament.
For the eight franchises, though, the T20 World Cup could potentially be a distraction they could do without. There is every reason for the franchises to fear that their best players might have one eye on their workloads in order to avoid injuries ahead of the World Cup. This could hold true especially for players who have been injury-prone or are recovering from major injuries: David Warner, Bhuvneshwar Kumar (both Sunrisers Hyderabad), Rohit Sharma and Hardik Pandya (both Mumbai Indians), to name a few.
At the same time the IPL can catapult uncapped, unknown talent into international contention, which was the case after the last edition of the tournament when T Natarajan (Sunrisers), Varun Chakravarthy (Kolkata Knight Riders), Rahul Tewatia (Rajasthan Royals), Suryakumar Yadav and Ishan Kishan (both Mumbai Indians) earned call-ups to India's white-ball squads for the tour of Australia and the home series against England.
Two new captains; two bold, fearless voices
Sanju Samson and Rishabh Pant have played some of the most turbocharged innings in the IPL including their record partnership for the Delhi Daredevils against the Gujarat Lions in 2017. This time Samson and Pant will captain the Rajasthan Royals and the Delhi Capitals respectively.
It will be a test of their character. Will captaincy suppress their natural aggression, which remains their biggest strength? Or will it usher in a new wave of leadership filled with brio and energy? The focus will especially be on Pant who many, including the former India captain Mohammad Azharuddin, believe is on his way to becoming a future India captain after his phenomenal success in international cricket over the past six months.
Pant has already said his ambition in this IPL is to take the Capitals "past the (finish) line", which they've come close to achieving in the past two seasons, including finishing runners-up in 2020. For Samson, the challenge is to help the Royals, who possess some of the most impactful players in the IPL in Ben Stokes, Jos Buttler and (if he recovers from a finger injury) Jofra Archer, progress into the playoffs. If both succeed, it will open up the tournament nicely.
Spin is in again?
The return of the IPL to India will make one group of players especially happy: the spinners. Last year, when the IPL was shifted to the UAE, spinners averaged a collective 34.03, their second-worst return for any IPL season behind 2016. While their overall economy rate was a middling 7.54 (they were most expensive in 2008, going at 8.19, and most frugal in 2009, at 6.76), they took only 198 wickets over the tournament, the third-worst return over a season.
This time, spinners can expect more help from the pitches, which might not only assist turn but also break up and offer variable bounce over the course of a season set to be played in peak summer temperatures. Teams that have been dependent on pace to win may need to adapt quickly and tweak their strategies a little.
Has the bubble popped?
The 2020 IPL was the first time the eight teams had experienced life in a biosecure bubble. Since it was the first time most of them were playing cricket since the World Health Organistaion declared Covid-19 as a pandemic in March 2020, players began the IPL with gusto. Most teams had booked luxury hotels in the UAE and some had even hired private beaches where teams could relax and switch off to recharge. While their movement was restricted, team-bonding sessions helped players and coaches spend more time together and gain a more intimate understanding of each other.
Nonetheless, some bubble fatigue did set in, and it may even have affected the performance of several teams in the second half of the tournament. Even the Capitals, despite making the final, struggled to sustain the winning rhythm they had set during the first half. Barring the Mumbai Indians, no other team was consistent. The monotony of the bubble life eventually took a toll on all teams.
The fatigue will be more pronounced this time around. Three Australian players have pulled out, and numerous players from around the world are coming into the IPL having spent months in different bubbles and served hard quarantines in different hotels across different continents. It will not be easy.
As the IPL itinerant Glenn Maxwell says, players miss "normal conversations" while living the "sheltered" life of a bubble, which he describes as a "never-ending nightmare". It's not an isolated view. Towards the end of their 2020-21 Australia tour, there was certainly some restlessness among India's players around the restrictions of the bubble.
The size of the bubble will also be smaller for most teams this year. Barring Mumbai, who have booked a beachfront property in Chennai, the other teams will have to make do with luxury hotels, some without terraces, most with swimming pools but only for recovery sessions.
All these challenges, needless to say, will be exacerbated by the ongoing surge in Covid-19 cases across India.
Caravan schedule creates a level-playing field
For the first time the IPL will follow a caravan schedule. Each team will play a set of matches at one venue before moving to the next one. The fact that teams will play in the same venue consecutively could help them prepare better and get used to the conditions. There could be more continuity in team selection too, with teams possibly looking to change their style of play only when they move to new venues.
Each team will play nine matches across two main venues, and five across two other venues. This could prove more beneficial to franchises than moving constantly from one venue to another. It could also create a more level playing field with no team enjoying a distinct home advantage. The curators at all six venues will, moreover, be supervised by the members of the BCCI's grounds and pitches committee.

Nagraj Gollapudi is news editor at ESPNcricinfo
Gaurav Sundararaman is a senior stats analyst at ESPNcricinfo