Rabbit Holes

Which was the best IPL season so far?

One of the early ones? One dominated by Mumbai? Or a Dhoni special? Our staffers watch the footage and get to arguing

The 2020 IPL season had a lot of close matches, but the Mumbai Indians remained the most dominant side throughout  •  Arjun Singh/BCCI

The 2020 IPL season had a lot of close matches, but the Mumbai Indians remained the most dominant side throughout  •  Arjun Singh/BCCI

Matt Roller, assistant editor: Well, regardless which season was our favourite of the first 13, I'm sure 2021 is going to be the best yet. [Send to editors: easiest preview content anyone has ever been involved in.]
Sreshth Shah, sub-editor: Before we get to the contenders, can we all just agree that 2011 was the worst? Ten teams in two groups of five, accompanied by complex match-ups where some teams faced each other only once? (Yes, Deiva, I know CSK won).
Roller: 2011 had the highest Kochi Tuskers Kerala coefficient, which means it was the best. I mean, you guys remember those kits, right?
Shah: Orange and purple, to symbolise their desire to have the orange-cap and purple-cap holders! Still gives me nightmares.
Deivarayan Muthu, sub-editor: Hahaha, back-to-back titles for CSK, but that final was so very one-sided. And, for me, some of these early seasons were bit hit-and-giggle.
Roller: To be fair, RCB signing Chris Gayle as a replacement for Dirk Nannes (like for like) was an all-time great off-field move. Orange cap and MVP, and the move that turned him into an IPL legend. But yeah - that format was horrible.
Shah: Honestly, Deiva, the hit-and-giggle may have attracted me the most! Most teams were still firming their strategies up. I'm pretty sure the Rajasthan Royals had the worst odds to win IPL 2008, having spent the least money at the auction. And the league still had Pakistani players - Shahid Afridi, Shoaib Akhtar among others.
Muthu: Absolutely. The Pakistan flavour in the IPL was something else. What a remarkable debut that was from Shoaib Akhtar at the Eden Gardens - the same venue where he had yorked Tendulkar and Dravid. Shoaib took down Gambhir and Sehwag, then bounced out AB de Villiers with what took off like a NASA rocket. He was touching 150kph and the ground was jiving and grooving to all of that. Sohail Tanvir: purple-cap holder in the first season. Great fun. Anyway, I know this will make me feel me old, but how old were you then, Matt?
Roller: Was our combined age less than Imran Tahir's actual age now? I was ten! [in 2008]
Muthu: I was six years older than you. I suck at math, but definitely less than Tahir.
Shah: And I was at the ground as a 15-year old doing DX-type celebrations. Never mind…
Roller: Shah + Muthu + Roller in IPL 1 = 41; Tahir in IPL 14 = 42. Nice.
Muthu: Hahaha, sorry to veer away, but Shawn Michaels was the best among the DX crowd.
Shah: So let's start from the top, shall we? I thought 2008 was excellent, only because we didn't know what to expect and the proper underdogs went on to clinch the whole thing. Shane Warne leading his troops to battle. The emergence of Yusuf Pathan.
But 2009, in South Africa, was even better. Imagine: the teams that finished seventh and eighth in 2008 reached the final the following season! That really cemented the IPL as a league where "anything could happen". And of course, the old wardog Anil Kumble playing a crucial role in the final. Proving that T20 cricket wasn't just for the newbies.
Roller: 2008 and 2009 were really fun from the "cricketainment" side, but that often made things feel a bit gimmicky, rather than a fully fledged league.
Personally, I think the early season that is worth considering is 2010. Third season, teams had developed their identities to a certain extent and were getting smarter about strategy, and you had global T20 specialists like Kieron Pollard beginning to get picked up for huge money after doing so well in the Champion League T20. And the SRT narrative arc: orange cap and MVP, but a match-losing innings in the final.
Shah: Don't forget table-toppers Delhi Daredevils finishing with ten wins out of 14 in the league stage in 2009, only to get knocked out by an Adam Gilchrist masterclass in the semi. That was one of the last of the "knockout-style semis".
Muthu: That's certainly missing in the IPL these days.
Shah: Matt, 2010 should be in consideration only because of the list of players who put up match-winning performances: Nannes, Dmitri Mascarenhas, Justin Kemp - remembering him taking 3 for 12 against Kolkata for CSK - and Juan "Rusty" Theron!
I'd still place 2009 above 2008 and 2010 among the first three seasons.
Roller: I don't think the early ones come close to anything that's happened in the past five editions. If you can ignore the nostalgia, then it feels pretty clear to me that the standard has shot up, T20 has evolved in plain sight, and each of the last five seasons has been brilliant in terms of the race for the playoffs in particular - all of them going down to the final day of the group stage, I think?
Shah: Thanks for bursting the (sorry to drop that all-important word these days) bubble, Matt, and bringing us all back to reality.
Muthu: Yeah, I'd agree with Matt that the first couple of seasons were more about "cricketainment". In the 2010 season, there was a bit of strategy, and it marked the arrival of Pollard. It was also one where spinners started to bowl more often in the powerplay. Ramesh Powar for Kings XI Punjab. Andrew Symonds used to take the new ball against the lefties. R Ashwin and Muttiah Muralitharan were CSK's powerplay spinners. The best strategic move that season has to be MS Dhoni stationing Matthew Hayden at the edge of the circle at short, straight mid-off and then placing a long-off right behind him, challenging Pollard to hit over both men, but Pollard eventually holed out to Haydos!
Roller: We should acknowledge there's a big personal aspect to all this too, by the way. I'll always look back at 2020 particularly fondly because it took place while the UK was heading back into lockdown - it was such good escapism to be able to watch that from mid-afternoon every day for two months while the days were getting shorter and the pubs and restaurants were starting to close again.
Muthu: There's maybe some recency attached to 2020, but it was quite thrilling, delivering one Super Over after another, including a double Super Over. Three teams at 12 points, three teams at 14. Sunrisers Hyderabad qualified with a mere 12 points in 2019, I think. KKR could have qualified in 2020 had they not lost heavily to RCB. Sure, it was CSK's worst season, but if Dwayne Bravo had limped and rolled out one cutter after another to Axar Patel, even they could have snuck in. Instead, Ravindra Jadeja tossed it into the swinging arc of Axar. There was a gulf between Mumbai and the rest, but If you look at just the other teams, it was pretty close.
Shah: Matt, I agree with you too. But just before we go into the last few seasons, the 2014 and 2015 editions deserve shoutouts too. Kolkata won 2014 on the back of nine straight victories - including doing the double over Mumbai in the league phase. And the last game of the league phase in 2014 had Mumbai Indians chasing 190 in 14.3 overs thanks to Corey Anderson (and Aditya Tare's last-ball six), which left Rahul Dravid throwing his cap on the floor.
And in 2015, Mumbai Indians were struggling after the first half of the season. Then they pulled out seven wins in their last eight league games to not only enter the top four but a streak of five wins took them to the top two. It was the first season where they really outmuscled their opponents - the start of an era that's still running. Both 2014 and 2015 story arcs made for fascinating seasons.
Roller: 2014 had the best final, I reckon? Wriddhiman Saha 115 not out off 55 and ends up on the losing side.
Shah: It was the best up until the two one-run wins - Mumbai vs Pune, 2017 and CSK vs Mumbai, 2019.
Roller: The UAE leg of 2014 made it quite fun too, in the effect it had on teams' strategies and the fact that we got to see some pure, uncut #MaxwellBall for a few weeks.
Muthu: Pujara and Maxi FTW. I'd put the 2010 final up there too - it was the beginning of the IPL's fiercest rivalry.
Roller: Oh, and nobody thinks 2013 was the best season, right? But it's worth mentioning that it did have the most iconic IPL innings of all time: Chris Gayle 175 not out.
I reckon 2016 is a genuine contender here - the Virat-AB year.
Shah: Of course. Sunrisers needing to win all three playoff games, having not finished in the top two. Kohli magic.
Roller: And also the season where Gujarat Lions turned up and were unbelievable! Easy to forget they were top of the points table.
Shah: It was the only time since the inception of the playoffs that a team outside the top two won.
Roller: Those Kohli-AB stands at Chinnaswamy were something else - against the Gujarat Lions and Sunrisers particularly, but they were just next-level good throughout the season. And then for SRH, the unfashionable team playing unfashionable cricket to do the job in the playoffs
Ben Cutting MOTM in the final! And another thriller - 208 v 200… David Warner scoring 50 every other game... what a season. I think that's got to be a podium finish as a minimum.
Muthu: But these were all seasons where the winning franchise got to play at home and maximise it. Which brings me to 2018. It started with everyone trolling CSK as Dad's Army. It ended up with Dhoni trolling everyone in typical Dhoni style. The played just one game at Chepauk due to political turmoil and showed that they could win away. Lungi Ngidi was yanked off the bench in Pune and became the enforcer. There was some Dhoni chaos theory, where he inverted his batting order, in Pune. He showed he still had it. There were games where Harbhajan Singh and Karn Sharma didn't bowl a single over. Dhoni is often criticised for being rigid, but this was one season where we went against the grain and absorbed all the pressure on comeback.
Shah: An overseas player, Mustafizur Rahman, winning the Emerging Player award. Bhuvneshwar Kumar's consistency. It was perhaps the first season that showed you need your bowling smarts to actually win T20 games consistently.
Muthu: It was also Rishabh Pant's coming-of-age season in the IPL. I think he smashed Bhuvi for 40-something off ten-something balls. Rashid was a phenom that season - his all-round brilliance vs KKR in the knockout was stunning.
Roller: Agree that 2018 was a really good one - Pant winning emerging player and coming through with some outrageous innings, the Chris Lynn-Sunil Narine combo flourishing, KL Rahul having a great season back when he used to play with intent...
Shah: Throw in Narine's emergence as a pinch-hitter.
Muthu: Oh yeah, Narine at the top was peak T20, one of the revelations of the 2018 season.
Roller: But equally, the overriding memory is slower-ball specialists doing really well - AJ Tye purple cap! - and I'm not convinced that always makes for the most enjoyable spectacle.
Shah: Okay, 2018 has my vote for the best season, pipping 2016 by a whisker. Now to see if 2020 has enough oomph to beat 2018.
Muthu: I never expected AJ Tye to hit close to 150kph. Didn't he bowl the fastest ball this Big Bash, Matt?
Roller: Yeah, he has completely reinvented himself, to be fair. But there were a few other guys that season too, Siddharth Kaul for example, bowling knuckleballs and taking 20-plus wickets.
Quick one for 2019: the Andre Russell season. I guess a few players leaving early maybe took the sheen off 2019. And there was the constant feeling that it was the warm-up act for the World Cup immediately after. That said, Dre Russ was out of this world - and the final was one of the best, as we've mentioned.
Muthu: Yeah, Dre's hitting was unbelievable that year. And that final was the most tactical final in the IPL. Mumbai made CSK dig deep and made Dhoni think like Mumbai do. Then Lasith Malinga, the greatest T20 bowler in the world (that's a debate for another day), did what he does.
Roller: But the real winner for me personally is 2020. My pitch: Everyone needed that season to happen. Expectations were probably a bit lower with the fact that every game was at a neutral venue, there was chaos in the build-up with various positive Covid tests, and uncertainty as to whether the tournament would even happen. But there were so many close games and multiple Super Overs. The most intricate and advanced tactical side of the IPL won, yet there was so little gap between the teams - there was almost nothing between the other seven. Throw in the context of lockdown over here and it's a clear winner for me.
Muthu: But 2020 and 2018 finals turned out to be one-sided affairs, but otherwise the quality of cricket...the playoff line-up being decided on the last day, big-ticket players lighting up the league. To stage the IPL itself during a pandemic was a massive achievement. Agree, it was hotly contested. For me, it's a tie between 2018 and 2020, with a Super-Over shootout. Or we don't need one. We know 2021 is gonna be even better.
Roller: Back to this for the pay-off line :)
Muthu: Are we done?
Roller: Think so?
Shah: 2020 was amazing, considering the constraints teams were facing. Covid, neutral venues, hot playing conditions. Add the end of Chennai Super Kings' dominance (sorry, CSK fans), Kings XI Punjab losing games they shouldn't have (against DC, Kolkata). Then the late Kings XI rally. Rahul Tewatia magic, T Natarajan emergence. Amid the terrible year that 2020 was, maybe the IPL saved the year's face for cricket?