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Brace yourself for the most closely-fought IPL yet

Gaurav Sundararaman and Sidharth Monga, 3:48 AM MT, April 06, 2018,

Ten years later, riding over controversy, embracing change, the leading T20 league in the world is back a richer, bigger and better-represented tournament. And yet it is the closest it could be to the original product. After the self-brought trials and tribulations by two teams, we are back to the eight cities that played in the first season in 2008. Gautam Gambhir and Yuvraj Singh are back with their home teams, Delhi Daredevils and Kings XI Punjab, and Shane Warne is back to his Cinderella XI, Rajasthan Royals. With everything changing around him, Virat Kohli becomes the only player to have represented the same franchise for 11 years. If it feels a little like travelling back in time in order to arrive at this future, there remains the same unpredictability the first season of IPL brought with it.

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Open IPL means less margin for error

It won't be a surprise if this year's edition is the closest fought. Expect a tight tussle for playoff spots in the last week of the league stage. Franchise owners have learnt from past mistakes at the auctions, and have become much smarter. As a result, this year's teams are better balanced, and there is no clear favourite at the outset. It is hard to predict who is likely to make the playoffs.

Less-fancied teams like Daredevils, Kings XI and Royal Challengers Bangalore have ensured they have plugged gaps in their XIs. Teams have enough bench strength to cover for players suffering injuries or leaving for international duty. In the past, it has taken teams about four-five games to identify the right combination and roles for their players. This year, they will have to be quicker.

Homecoming for some captains, new adventure for others

T20 is a format in which coaches and analysts can have a bigger influence on the games, live, but everybody acknowledges it remains a sport where the captain is in charge. More so in the IPL because not only does he have to make a great number of crucial tactical decisions in little over three hours but also because he has to manage superstar egos from across the world and make disparate units work together with hardly any time for team-building. We have enough instances from previous editions where captains have failed and have been removed mid-season.

The experienced MS Dhoni, Gambhir and Rohit Sharma - seven titles won under their captaincy - will look to implement strategies that worked for them and add to their silverware while Kohli will need to find that extra something to take his side past the final hurdle for a first time. Not surprisingly, Indian captains have led seven of the 10 successful campaigns, but the Australians have left a significant mark too, with three wins. However, with David Warner and Steven Smith pulled out at the last minute, there is opportunity new leaders - R Ashwin, Dinesh Karthik, Ajinkya Rahane and Kane Williamson - to make their mark.

This is their first IPL season as full-time captains. All four of them have had moderate careers in the shortest format. Williamson and Ashwin were not even regular starters for their IPL sides in the last two years. Rahane and Karthik are only just starting to find their way back to regular spots in India's limited-overs sides. All four will need to justify not only their team results but also their own individual spots in the XI.

Karthik and Williamson have some experience in captaining their state and national sides and are in a better position to fill the big shoes of Gambhir and Warner. There have not been many bowler-captains in the IPL, and so it will be interesting to see how Ashwin goes about his job. He is touted to be one of the most astute cricketers India has produced and his first challenge will be to help Kings XI make the playoffs. Rahane showed promising signs in his only Test as a captain for India, and will look to carry forward similar ideas with a revamped Royals outfit. He will have an IPL winner in Warne helping him out.

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Umpire's howler is not final

The IPL has never been at a threat of falling behind other leagues when it comes to entertainment, strategy and tactics, but some of the umpiring in the tournament has provided its fans derision-filled pleasure and has also turned matches on their head. But finally, after 10 years, the IPL has introduced DRS. It is a new element especially for the number of non-international players who have no experience of using the system. Franchises need to make a decision on who will take the call considering some batsmen and even the wicketkeeper could be entirely new to DRS.

Another less significant but necessary fallout is that the umpires will now have to change the signal for the strategic timeouts. The "T" symbol will be used for DRS as is the norm in international cricket. To announce a strategic timeout, the umpires will now point to their wrist with raised hands. This is the signal used for the final hour of play in first-class cricket.

Mid-season transfers

The likes of B Aparajith and Jaydev Shah will be disappointed they are not part of this year's IPL. They have been warming the benches for many seasons without getting a game. With the introduction of mid-season transfers this year, teams can trade uncapped cricketers who have not played more than two games with other franchises. While this adds a new dimension to team composition and strategy, will anyone be comfortable releasing a player privy to their strategies and tactics to an opponent? In a tournament that lasts only two months and 14 games per team, it will be surprising to see if teams really use this option.

Wristspin is in, but is fingerspin out?

Once an art under threat in cricket - because of its large margin for error - wristspin is back in a big way. Every limited-overs side in the world wants one. More wickets have fallen to wristspinners (217) than fingerspinners (192) in the last two IPL seasons. The top five ranked bowlers in T20Is are wristspinners. Five of the eight attacks this season are built around wristspin. Yet the really good fingerspinners have still managed to survive.

In the recently concluded Nidahas Trophy, Washington Sundar showed there is a lifeline for fingerspinners. Often bowling in the Powerplay, he showed lack of turn can be made up with discipline and sharp knowledge of both his own game and the batsmen's as well. There will be roles for Ashwin - not least as captain of Kings XI, his team-mate Axar Patel, Dhoni's trusted Ravindra Jadeja and Shahbaz Nadeem, who has an excellent economy-rate across seasons. Could this be the year that fingerspinners strike back?

Home is where the advantage is

Royal Challengers will not want a repeat of last season's performance. One of the primary reasons for their loss was the pitches were slow and turning and did not suit the brand of attacking cricket they usually play. Kohli, AB de Villiers, Quinton De Kock and the rest will hope that issue has been addressed. It is highly important to maximise home advantage in a tight league. A perfect home record can more often than not be enough to qualify for the playoffs. This season could actually boil down to whether teams are able to win away from home.

Expect slow pitches in Chennai to suit their spinners and an aging batting lineup. With Warner out, it will be logical for Hyderabad too to prepare bowler-friendly conditions to suit their attack. On the other hand, a top-heavy Daredevils, perhaps the most aggressive batting line-up this year, will prefer flat pitches that help them go hard from ball one. Eden Gardens has offered pace and swing over the last two seasons, and Knight Riders have structured their squad to exploit that. And a challenge awaits Kings XI and Royals, who have not had a stable home over the years and have not been able to ascertain what exactly their home advantage is.

They said they'll be back

Chennai has been buzzing over the last 10 days. One of the first teams to strike a chord with the city it represented is back. The big crowds at their training session, outside their hotels, and following the team bus, Dhoni holding back tears when talking about Super Kings' training sessions: all of it tells you how much Super Kings mean to the city of Chennai. The first IPL champions, Royals, are back too, with promise of similar out-of-the-box thinking that heralded their surprise success.

Both teams have managed to retain a few of their past players and are raring to start the season. Super Kings' played their practice matches in front packed stands, and the tickets for their first home game are sold out. Dhoni will be leading a side after two years and will want to ensure the CSK continue their 100% record of making the playoffs. Royals have revamped their support staff and will be hoping the new overseas recruits - Ben Stokes, Jos Buttler, D'Arcy Short and Jofra Archer - deliver for them. Traditionally known as the "Moneyball" team, they have now picked up the two costliest players at the auction.

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