One of the truest clichés of the IPL is that each edition is more open than the last one. For example, the playoffs spots in the last four seasons were determined only on the last day of the league phase. But in 2020, a new twist in the form of a pandemic has made this most lucrative of tournaments even more unpredictable.
The majority of players in each franchise haven't played competitive cricket since March. The tournament itself is being played at three neutral venues, nullifying the players' familiarity with Indian conditions. The absence of crowds, a natural source of energy in sport, will be deafening in the empty desert bowls of Dubai, Abu Dhabi and Sharjah.
Cocooned inside the bubble for more than a month now, the players have been restless to play. Franchise owners are banking on this being the most-watched IPL ever. It is being sold with the promise of being a panacea for the pain caused by Covid-19. Under the gaze of millions of eyeballs, can this IPL deliver on that promise?
Its success will depend on the quality of the competition, which in turn depends on the following variables:
Neutral venues = Level playing field
Stephen Fleming admits there is no home game this time. Every match, the Chennai Super Kings head coach says, will be like an "away game". While franchises say they've never had a say in pitch-making in the IPL in any case, teams have had some influence on the nature of tracks, which created a home advantage. One crucial factor behind the Super Kings' success - three-times champions and the only team to make the playoffs in every edition they've played in - has been their ability to extract home advantage at the MA Chidambaram Stadium. The same goes for four-time champions Mumbai Indians at the Wankhede Stadium.
In unfamiliar conditions in the UAE, adaptability will become key. For the coaching staff and captains, the challenge will be to keep players mentally sharp while remaining flexible with selections dictated by the conditions - pitch and weather.
Adding to the unpredictability will be the fact that no cricket has been played on any of the three grounds for several months. Also, Dubai and Abu Dhabi are each scheduled to host a high volume of matches, which they are not used to. The pitch behaviour, an intangible, is likely to keep teams on their toes.
New coaching set-ups, fresh energy
Five franchises have overhauled their coaching set-ups since IPL 2019. Kolkata Knight Riders have appointed former New Zealand captain Brendon McCullum as their head coach. Trevor Bayliss, who led the Knight Riders to their two IPL titles, in 2012 and 2014, is now head coach at Sunrisers Hyderabad.
Mike Hesson, who was New Zealand's head coach when McCullum was captain, is the team director at Royal Challengers Bangalore, one of the three teams without an IPL crown. This is Hesson's second stint in the IPL after serving as team director at Kings XI Punjab last year. Assisting him is the former Australia batsman Simon Katich, who will be serving as head coach for the first time, having performed assistant-coach duties at the Knight Riders for a few seasons.
There is only one Indian head coach in the IPL, the former India captain and coach Anil Kumble, who is both the head of cricket and coaching staff at Kings XI, another team never to have won the title. Andrew McDonald, the former Australia allrounder, will take charge as head coach at Rajasthan Royals.
New coaches mean new philosophies and fresh ideas. But franchises always talk about retaining a core of players. Can they give coaches the same leeway to build on their ideas instead of overhauling their structures time and again?
Exploiting depth in squads
The biggest challenge coaches are likely to face this IPL could be niggles and injuries, considering a majority of players are coming off a long break with limited practice. There will be no air travel involved, but the oppressive heat and dry conditions in the UAE will remain a challenge throughout the tournament. There may be situations when workloads need to be managed or there could be more injuries than normal. This puts an emphasis on the depth of each squad. The reserves and back-ups for each role need to be ready. This may be an edition where we see the maximum players used by each franchise.
A tale of two halves
With just three venues, pitches are bound to become slower as the tournament progreses. Fresh, lively pitches could be expected in the first couple of weeks, but bowlers will be dominant as the pitches slow down. Teams that have the arsenal to adapt and play a different brand of cricket over both halves will be in a good position to make the playoffs. Good players of spin, T20 anchors, bowlers with variations, reverse-swing specialists and spinners will be the impact players. Do not be surprised if you see teams playing certain types of players in the first half and a different set in the second half.
Go-to bowlers: those with variations
As the pitches become slower, variation bowlers will become more effective. Knuckle balls, legcutters and offcutters are already used by fast bowlers in T20 cricket, but these will become the go-to deliveries on slower surfaces. Taking pace off the ball and varying speeds will be valuable, as was witnessed recently in CPL T20. The highest wicket-taker there was a fast bowler - Scott Kuggeleijn - who started the tournament bowling fast but quickly adapted to take pace off the ball.
In the last three seasons of the IPL, offcutters and legcutters have been the most successful deliveries. Bowlers have taken a wicket once every nine balls with the legcutter while the offcutter has resulted in a wicket once every 11 balls. While the likes of Jasprit Bumrah, Dwayne Bravo and Bhuvneshwar Kumar will continue to be the key bowlers for their teams, Keemo Paul, Daniel Sams and Jayadev Unadkat - who all have good slower balls - could play an equally dominant hand.
A new viewing experience
One of IPL's unique selling points, and a visible part of its success, has been the sellout crowds. They have thronged to witness not just the cricket but also participate in and enjoy the party-like atmosphere, enhanced by the presence of Bollywood personalities along with the rich and the famous. For the fan, the IPL has become an 'I-was-there' moment.
The fans' enthusiasm didn't just add to the buzz of the IPL, it also energised players. Katich acknowledged that some international players who get an adrenaline rush in key moments from the crowd noise could be impacted. However, Katich also pointed out that younger players could take advantage of the absence of crowds and play without any external pressure.