International exodus casts shadow as virus-hit IPL resumes in UAE
Indian Premier League hostilities will resume on Sunday in the United Arab Emirates in front of spectators, but without a host of top international stars after four months of pandemic suspension.
Fans will be in the stands for the first time in two years when Rohit Sharma's title-holders, Mumbai Indians, take on Mahendra Singh Dhoni's Chennai Super Kings in Dubai to restart the high-octane Twenty20 competition.
The tournament was halted in May because of a devastating surge in coronavirus deaths in India, prompting foreign players to rush for every available flight out. Many are not coming back.
England stars including Ben Stokes, Jos Buttler, Jonny Bairstow, Dawid Malan, Jofra Archer and Chris Woakes will be missing.
Australia fast bowler Pat Cummins, who signed for Kolkata Knight Riders for $2 million in 2020, will also be absent because of his partner's pregnancy.
Some England players are injured and others have opted to rest before next month's T20 World Cup.
But the personal reasons cited by some have been questioned, especially after India pulled out of the fifth and final Test in England because of a Covid outbreak in the tourists' camp.
"Some of the players were kind enough to inform us in advance about their withdrawal but one of them went about it in a very unprofessional manner," one franchise official told AFP on condition of anonymity.
- 'Anything can happen' -
"Unfortunate that we had to end up here early," said India and Royal Challengers Bangalore captain Virat Kohli in Dubai.
"But with Covid in place, things are very uncertain," added Kohli, who on Thursday announced he will be stepping down as India's T20 captain after the World Cup.
"Anything can happen at any time. Hopefully, we're able to maintain a good, strong, and secure environment, and have a quality IPL."
The eight-team tournament resumes with Delhi Capitals at the top of the table followed by Chennai, Bangalore and Mumbai in the playoff places.
- 'An exciting phase' -
The remaining 31 matches will be held in Dubai, Sharjah and Abu Dhabi.
The final will be in Dubai on October 15, just two days before the rescheduled T20 World Cup begins, also in the UAE and Oman.
"It's going to be an exciting phase and a very important one for us at RCB and then for the Indian team at the T20 World Cup," Kohli said.
Much focus will be on Kohli's results and whether Sharma, expected to take over as India T20 captain, can add to his five titles with holders Mumbai.
Bangalore praised Kohli's "fearless and selfless" leadership after his decision to relinquish the India captaincy.
Kohli's side have called up replacements for Australia's Adam Zampa and Kane Richardson, who both left in April as the Covid outbreak in India grew.
The additions of Dushmantha Chameera and Wanindu Hasaranga of Sri Lanka plus Singapore batsman Tim David were welcomed by Kohli who said they have "great skill sets".
Delhi Capitals have called in Australian fast bowler Ben Dwarshuis to replace Woakes, who pulled out to stay fresh for the T20 World Cup.
Rajasthan Royals, fifth in the table, have seen their playoff hopes badly hit with the loss of Stokes (mental health break), Archer (injured), Buttler (personal reasons) and Liam Livingstone, another who left before the IPL's suspension.
Pre-pandemic, it was estimated to generate more than $11 billion for the Indian economy each year and will grow to 10 teams in 2022.
Five players to watch
The Indian Premier League roars back this weekend in the United Arab Emirates, more than four months after being halted by the coronavirus pandemic in India.
With the high-octane tournament concluding immediately ahead of next month's Twenty20 World Cup, AFP Sport highlights five players to watch in the white-ball extravaganza:
- Virat Kohli (Royal Challengers Bangalore) -
The Royal Challengers Bangalore skipper will have a point to prove as his team bids to win the IPL for the first time, especially after his decision to relinquish India's Twenty20 captaincy after the World Cup.
His decision gives a twist to the unspoken rivalry with Mumbai Indians captain Rohit Sharma, who is expected to succeed Kohli as India Twenty20 captain.
Bangalore are third in the table and there will be close analysis of the leadership skills of "King" Kohli, who will remain in charge of India's Test and one-day international teams.
- Eoin Morgan (Kolkata Knight Riders) -
Kolkata are seventh of the eight teams and left-hander Morgan has seen his side win only twice while scoring just 98 runs in seven outings. Australia pace bowler Pat Cummins is not coming back to help with the campaign.
Morgan is one of only two overseas captains left in the IPL with New Zealand's Kane Williamson at Sunrisers Hyderabad.
He turned 35 on September 10 and KKR paid tribute with epithets such as "Captain Fantastic. Captain Reliable. Captain Marvellous".
But international spinner Kuldeep Yadav has gone public over the lack of communication in the Kolkata team, adding to the pressure to find a winning recipe.
- Rashid Khan (Sunrisers Hyderabad) -
When the Taliban were completing their takeover of war-torn Afghanistan last month, 22-year-old spin wizard Rashid Khan was rattling opposition batsmen in the inaugural edition of The Hundred tournament in England.
One of the hottest properties in international cricket, Rashid showed his temperamental side when stepped down as Afghanistan's skipper for not being consulted on the World Cup squad.
He remains crucial to Sunrisers Hyderabad's hopes of getting off the bottom of the IPL table. The leg-spinner, who has Mohammad Nabi, the new Afghan captain, in the team, is now in his fourth season with Hyderabad and has taken 85 wickets in 69 IPL games.
- Imran Tahir (Chennai Super Kings) -
With his flowing mane of hair, trademark headband and a celebration longer than a pace bowler's run-up, Tahir is a feisty character with a mesmerising googly.
After being left out of South Africa's T20 World Cup squad, Tahir complained that he deserved "a little more respect" and will be determined to prove that his country made the wrong decision during the remainder of the IPL.
- Jasprit Bumrah (Mumbai Indians) -
India's "yorker king" Jasprit Bumrah goes back to IPL duty with Mumbai Indians having led his country's pace onslaught in England, claiming 18 wickets in the unfinished Test series led by the tourists 2-1.
With his distinct upright action, Bumrah, 27, was spotted as a special talent by Mumbai scout John Wright in 2013.
Now partnered by New Zealand's Trent Boult, Bumrah has bagged 115 wickets in 99 matches for the five-time champions, who are aiming for a third straight title when competition resumes.