The year Indians bettered the best from the rest

Indian talent shone brighter than ever at the 17th edition of the IPL. But with massive scores, the season also showed a further tilt of balance towards batters
Express illustrations
Express illustrationsSourav Roy

On the last day of the league stage of IPL 2024, Travis Head and Abhishek Sharma of Sunrisers Hyderabad—the most feared opening combination—walked out to the middle needing to chase 214 to get a chance at a top-two spot.

In the very first ball of the chase, disaster struck. Travis was cleaned up by young Indian Arshdeep Singh.

In seasons past, the Sunrisers might have panicked after losing their talismanic Australian opener. Instead, Rahul Tripathi walked in and nervelessly smashed 23 off the next 10 balls. And then Abhishek Sharma got into the act, hitting 66 in just 28 balls—including five more sixes—and powered his team to a commanding four-wicket victory and into the playoffs. In all his past 47 IPL appearances since 2018, Sharma had hit a total of 32 sixes, this year he hit 40.

It’s been that kind of year. This, the 17th season of the IPL, has given us plenty to celebrate and a fair amount to think about. First, the good news. If this league has often been dominated by international talent and a few Indian superstars, the last few years have seen a huge surge in the effectiveness and performances of domestic Indian talent. And 2024 has seen that taken to a totally different level.

Abhishek Sharma and Nitish Reddy starring for the Sunrisers, Shashank Singh and Ashutosh Rana for Delhi, Swapnil Singh making some vital contributions with the ball and the bat for RCB, and Harshit Rana and Vaibhav Arora with the ball for KKR. The list can go on and on. And these were not one-offs—instead, they gave consistent performances that took their teams to victory over a series of matches.

Many of these players have been regulars at the trial camps called by IPL teams in the months before the IPL auction. The domestic players go from camp to camp hoping to impress scouts and coaches enough to get a bid come auction day. And this year, many struck gold—not just getting picked, but getting their chance in the middle.

When players like Shashank Singh, costing only Rs 20 lakh, are winning games in the middle, teams will definitely increase their focus on honing and blooding local talent. The other big change in the tournament was a rule that was actually introduced in 2023, but was not really used effectively by teams in its first season.

This year, the ‘impact player’ rule played a huge part in the tournament. With a specialist bowler on hand to bring in, all-rounders, once the most valuable pieces for franchises, were no longer the flavour of the season. So the likes of Shivam Dube or Venkatesh Iyer, who might have had to bowl in previous seasons, really did not chance their arm. And while it made for more runs and options, it’s not great news for Indian cricket, given that the International Cricket Council does not allow impact subs.

How much this rule might hurt Indian preparation for the World Cup will only be evident in the next few weeks. It’s instructive to note that the ICC also introduced a similar rule in 2005, allowing a ‘supersub’ for each team, but hastily withdrew the rule after nine months.

The other slightly worrying factor is the overheating of the IPL: 200+ scores, once winning totals in 90 percent of matches, have now become routine. The likes of Abhishek Sharma and Travis Head are not unique. In the first season, 620 sixes were hit in the IPL in 59 matches; that number went down to 508 the next season as bowlers learned to adjust to the format. But the last few years have seen the balance between bat and ball tilt alarmingly in favour of batters.

The thousand-sixes-in-a-season mark was first breached in 2022, with 1,062 hit in 74 matches. This year has seen 1,208 hit in 69 matches, 14 centuries scored and a run rate of 9.61—all highs in the league’s 17-year history. While the skill and ability of the batters have definitely played a part, the absolutely flat tracks and small boundaries have been significant factors. Some of the most fascinating matches were when teams scored smaller totals and the ball had a larger part to play. The Lucknow-Gujarat game at the Ekana stadium being a case in point, where a score of 163 was defended.

For Indian cricket, more balance would be a great idea, especially as the national T20 team has not travelled well in conditions where the ball was doing a bit and the boundaries were a bit longer. The IPL probably needs to cool down and give the bowlers a more even chance.

The last, slightly discordant note in the IPL actually happened before the tournament. In the final year of his contract with the Gujarat Titans, their captain Hardik Pandya contrived to get himself traded to the Mumbai Indians in a deal where Gujarat received nothing but cash.

One can understand the Titans allowing him to go—no point keeping a reluctant campaigner for an extra season if he really wanted to go, given that he would have anyway left in a year. But it is a disturbing precedent.

If superstar players can push to be traded to a team of their choice, the auction, which ensures financial prudence and an even playing field for teams, would be bereft of meaning, and prices would spiral out of control, with richer teams stockpiling talent. The fact that the move was a disaster for the Mumbai Indians may be the best thing for the long-term health of the league.

So it has been a great year for the IPL in terms of balance—not one of the four teams who qualified for the playoffs in 2023 made it to this year’s playoffs—but a slightly worrying trend in terms of the domination of the bat. And a few safeguards that need to be in place for player trading. But the continual emergence of top domestic talent is the gift that seems to keep giving. And that’s what makes this league so special.

Joy Bhattacharjya

Sports producer and former Team Director, Kolkata Knight Riders

(Views are personal)

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