CHENNAI: So here it is. After a long delay and so many logistical challenges, another edition of the Indian Premier League (IPL) is set to roll.
This has been a strange year for most sporting events and it will be a strange environment for the IPL too, sans fans and the usual glamour.
But there will be no shortage of drama. Emotions will reach fever pitch for the next 53 days.
And what better contest than defending champions Mumbai Indians taking on three-time winners Chennai Super Kings.
If one goes purely by past reputation, this is a mouth-watering clash.
These two have had many a memorable contest, including last season's final, which Mumbai won on the last ball.
No team has beaten Chennai more than Mumbai and their head-to-head record reads 11-11, which gives the complete picture about this rivalry.
If one goes by paper, Mumbai are undoubtedly the stronger side. They are the favourites across all betting platforms to win the title and they have reasons to be optimistic. Even before a ball is bowled, Mumbai are already at an advantage.
Having trained for over a couple of weeks, they know how the Sheikh Zayed Stadium pitch in Abu Dhabi looks like. Chennai, on the other hand, will get to see the pitch only on Saturday as they have been training mostly in Dubai.
Even in terms of preparation, the Covid-19 cases in their camp meant they resumed training only two weeks ago. That is very little time considering most of their players are coming into the tournament without much competitive cricket in a long time — longer than what others have endured due to pandemic — and are on the wrong side of 30.
This is where Chennai appear vulnerable for the first time in IPL history. If auctions are held next season, the franchise's many familiar faces may move on if they decide to rebuild the squad.
Odds suggest they are the third favourites for the title, in seasons past they have entered the league as favourites. MS Dhoni, Dwayne Bravo, Imran Tahir, Shane Watson, Faf du Plessis are only getting older by the day.
On pitches where scoring boundaries will not be easy, their fitness will be severely tested when it comes to running between the wickets on hot and humid conditions.
“Experienced players identify key moments and that's why they've done so well in their careers. They can turn games, absorb pressure or just sum out the situation. That's what experience is about and that's why we value it so highly,” Chennai head coach Stephen Fleming told their official website.
“And that's why we've been able to get over the line in so many close games because the key player has been one with a lot of experience. And you also mix that with skill. You are conscious of having a skilful side and adding youth when we can and with that get the balance pretty right,” he said.
But not many will write-off Chennai. They will play on pitches which are not very different from what they encounter back home at MA Chidambaram Stadium.
They will be the least affected with regards to changing their game plan as they have built their squad with a strong spin presence and players whose style suits the track at Chepauk. Sans Suresh Raina, Dhoni will mostly bat at No 4 and be the anchorman.
If it is going to be a low-scoring tournament, there is none better than Dhoni to marshal his troops and on him lies Chennai's hopes. Chennai won't be easy pushovers, neither will they be a formidable outfit.