Expanded IPL returns to India, but crowds remain under Covid curbs

The Indian Premier League returns for its biggest season on Saturday, with a galaxy of top names and two new franchises expanding the world’s richest cricket competition to 10 teams for its 15th edition.

But the crowd in this cricket-crazy country will be limited to at least 25 per cent, with group games limited to four venues – one in Pune and three in Mumbai.

The venues for the three playoff matches and the May 29 final are yet to be announced.

International T20 greats like Australia’s David Warner and England’s Jos Buttler will be back for two months of high-octane cricket, but fellow Englishman Ben Stokes and West Indies legend Chris Gayle are the big names that will be missing.

The teams, based on their previous IPL records, will be split into two groups of five for a 70-match regular season that promises to be fully completed for the first time in India since 2019 due to the coronavirus pandemic.

“This season is going to be crowded and we are looking forward to full capacity soon,” Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) treasurer Arun Dhumal told AFP.

“New teams bring a lot of excitement and after the players auction, in a way, all the teams are new.

“There’s a lot of new blood and we’re hoping it will be exciting for the players and the fans.”

10 teams spent $75 million to buy 204 players in last month’s auction, with Mumbai Indians bringing back Ishan Kishan for $2 million.

England batsman Liam Livingstone was the costliest overseas player to have cost Punjab Kings $1.52 million to cement their bid for the first IPL title.

The two new teams – set up at a combined cost of $1.6 billion – are Gujarat Titans, owned by US venture capital fund CVC, and Lucknow Super Giants, backed by Indian tycoon Sanjeev Goenka.

Rohit Sharma-led Mumbai Indians have been the most successful team in the IPL, winning a record five titles in 2013, 2015, 2017, 2019 and 2020.

Chennai Super Kings, led by veteran former India captain Mahendra Singh Dhoni, are the defending champions and will open the season against Bollywood megastar Shah Rukh Khan-owned Kolkata Knight Riders at the Wankhede Stadium in Mumbai on Saturday.

The two-month-long event will see a total of 74 matches, with Australia’s Ricky Ponting and Tom Moody, New Zealand’s Stephen Fleming and Sri Lanka’s Mahela Jayawardene being coached by some of cricket’s former greats.

Debutant Gujarat Titans have dismissed Afghanistan’s high-class spinner Rashid Khan, but England’s Jofra Archer’s explosive pace may not be on display for Mumbai Indians as he missed the Ashes in Australia with an elbow injury Were.

Among the domestic superstars, Virat Kohli will be under pressure after stepping down as India captain and by his lofty standards, will have a lean spell with the bat not scoring an international century since November 2019.

After trying and failing to win the IPL title for nine seasons as captain of Royal Challengers Bangalore, “King Kohli” also stepped down with South Africa’s Faf du Plessis taking over.

Vijay Lokapally, a veteran journalist and Kohli’s biographer, told AFP: “(Kohli) doesn’t look so confident, but he needs a little luck too. I’m sure you’ll enjoy the same Virat, batting very freely. Doing so, dominating.” ,

“And it’s good if we expect him to excel every time, it speaks to his respect in the cricketing world.”

The tournament began in India in April last year, but had to be suspended a month later at the halfway point as Covid infections escalated across the country.

It eventually resumed in the United Arab Emirates in September, with Chennai Super Kings defeating Kolkata Knight Riders in the final on 15 October in Dubai.

The pandemic also forced the IPL to be played in the United Arab Emirates in 2020.

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