IPL 2018 was the most exciting and entertaining one ever. Never has the tournament seen so many tight finishes, and a real dogfight to get into the playoff positions.
The IPL as a T20 league got a boost in popularity this year, but to confuse this with it being high-quality cricket would be wrong. As far as quality goes, it wasn't of a very high standard in terms of cricketing skills.
But what this shows is that cricket becomes entertaining when there is intense competition between teams. Fans don't really care much about the quality of cricket, as long as it is an edge-of-the-seat kind of experience. International cricket must make a note of this.
Also striking in this IPL were the kind of dramatic turnarounds seen. It was a dream script for those invested in the event. You were never sure about the final result because right through this IPL, fans saw, many times, teams in losing positions coming back to win games. The strong possibility of a likely change in the course of a match kept them in their seats at the grounds and in front of their screens, mobile or TV, till the very end.
Rights-holders want fans to spend more time in front of their screens. This IPL will have seen a surge in this regard.
My theory on why we had so many tight games and turnarounds is that there wasn't one great team - not even Chennai Super Kings. All teams were similar in one aspect, and this was the main reason for the intense competition: each team had major weaknesses; vulnerabilities, waiting to be exposed at a given time, allowing opponents to come back into the game.
Interestingly, the one team that had the fewest weaknesses did not qualify for the playoffs - Mumbai Indians. Their failure this season just did not have any cricket logic; you could put it down to it being just one of those things. It's a bit like the justification we give when a great batsman has a run of low scores: Mumbai were just out of form as a team this season.
An Indian flavour
This year the IPL was the most Indian it has ever been. Local players often overshadowed the overseas ones. There were, in fact, two games when teams played just three foreign players in the XI out of choice. Sure, some foreign players of genuine class were missing - the likes of David Warner, Steven Smith, Mitchell Starc and Kagiso Rabada. If they had been around, the overseas fraternity would perhaps have made more of an overall impact on the tournament.
But as it turned out, it was generally a bad IPL for foreign players, especially for those who came with reputations owing to their big-hitting performances in the Big Bash and so on.
These players got a taste of the Indianness of the Indian Premier League, and learned that this widely watched, extremely lucrative T20 league is ultimately about slow-paced Indian pitches and, yes, spinners. Each team had at least two, if not three, like KKR did.
If you are not a good player of spin and don't have the subtleties in your skills to account for spin, whether batting or bowling, you will struggle in the IPL. After this IPL, I see team owners getting a bit sceptical about the power hitters from England, Australia and South Africa.
It was also an IPL where some of the smaller names of Indian batting took centre stage - batsmen like Rishabh Pant and Suryakumar Yadav. Having been part of this high-profile league for a few seasons, they perhaps feel more at home now and not as intimidated by its atmosphere. They really came into their own this time.
It was also a great IPL for those players who are true products of the soil - batsmen and bowlers who year after year go through the hard grind of playing on Indian pitches in Ranji cricket that no one watches. Their immense knowledge of how to survive and excel in these conditions has made players like Siddarth Kaul and Ambati Rayudu invaluable.
Their success provides great hope for other Indian domestic players of their kind, and it makes me very happy because I really want this breed of player to be a part of the IPL and to enjoy its spoils.
Go-to deliveries: knuckleball and yorker
We also saw that the knuckleball is now the most favoured version of the slower ball. With the other slower balls, the scrambled seam is a giveaway for batsmen; the advantage with the knuckleball is that the batsman still sees a seam-up delivery coming towards him, even if it's now coming 30kph slower than the last seam-up delivery.
We also received reaffirmation that the yorker is still the most effective tool in the death overs to stop dangerous big hitters like Andre Russell from taking the game away. This was seen whenever Jofra Archer of Rajasthan Royals nailed his yorkers.
The problem is, there aren't many bowlers who can bowl it consistently with control. We saw a large percentage of high full tosses as bowlers tried to get the ball into the blockhole. This, for me, is a definite parameter to judge the overall quality of T20 bowling by: how many bowlers can actually bowl good yorkers under pressure. Currently there aren't any.
Rashid Khan, playing his second IPL season, emerged as a real force in T20 cricket. His unique style of delivering both legspin and googly with the back of the wrist facing the batsman was a nightmare for the T20 tonkers. Before him, when you saw the back of the bowler's hand as a batsman, you knew it was a googly. Not anymore. Now you have to also look at how the seam is rotating as the ball is coming towards you, to be absolutely sure.
Kevin Pietersen made a good point about how batsmen in T20s aren't watching the wrists and the ball closely because the dominant thought is to hit the ball out of the ground. It's a bit like when a fielder fumbles when he knows a run-out is possible - he misses the ball because he is thinking of the final event, throwing and running the batsman out, and not focusing 100% on fielding the ball.
CSK, the champions, reminded me yet again of something that first struck me after I watched T20 cricket for the first time: that this format, albeit modern, can still have a place for ageing, experienced players who aren't as mobile anymore.
A common phenomenon seen this IPL was how batting teams would lose their way in the middle stage of the innings after getting a rollicking start. I believe this was because the middle stages, unlike the first six overs of Powerplay and the last four overs, is not just about power-hitting; it's also about being sensible in a frenzied atmosphere, and that's where age and experience can be very handy.
Middle-overs and Powerplay run rates and averages: last five IPL seasons
The average runs-per-wicket figure is the lowest in the 2018 IPL among the last five seasons; the corresponding Powerplay rates were the highest
Look at Shane Watson. He took 11 balls to get off the mark in the final, but his experience didn't allow him to panic and he kept his calm in the middle stages to take this team through.
And what a revelation MS Dhoni has been this IPL! He has got his batting mojo back. He can now once again clear the ropes four times in six attempts, unlike once in six, which seemed to have become his fate over the last few seasons. As for his captaincy, well, I believe no other captain would have managed to win a title with the kind of limitations his team had. It was not just the age factor, CSK had some other deficiencies too, like in their bowling.
The feature that stood out for me in his captaincy was how he used his vast experience to pre-empt events. It was like he visualised the effects of his intended move and then decided whether he should go ahead with it.
Despite being picked as pure spinners in the side, Harbhajan Singh and Karn Sharma each had a game where they didn't bowl a single over in the match.
Well done, CSK. What a comeback it has been for them, and yes, Dhoni's career fairy tale continues. It is into year 2018 now.