New Delhi: It's back, like or not. Starting April 3, colored clothes, strategic time-outs, cheerleaders, Shah Rukh Khan, Ravi Shastri, Navjot Sidhu, dancing, hollering, vuvuzelas, razzmatazz, that signature theme song and more will collectively fill the airwaves, TV screens, smart phones, living rooms and water-cooler discussions across the country - and overseas, to those who wish it upon themselves - as Indian cricket shifts its focus to the Twenty20 format. The season of 'cricketainment' is upon us, for on Wednesday at the hallowed Eden Gardens in Kolkata, hosts and current champions Kolkata Knight Riders will play Delhi Daredevils to get underway the sixth season of the Indian Premier League. And then it's all about pizzazz, baby.
To jog the memory and enlighten anyone who hasn't tuned in, IPL 6 will comprise nine teams - the Deccan Chargers are now Sunrisers Hyderabad - and 76 matches, will start and conclude in Kolkata, and each team will play each other home and away during a league phase consisting of 72 matches at 12 venues. The league also has a new sponsor, Pepsi, who hope they can indeed change the game.
But what the IPL needs is a clean, competitive season. The buildup to the fifth season in 2012 was marred by several controversies, such as the disbanding of the Kochi franchise; the spat between the Sahara group, sponsors of the Indian team and owners of the Pune team; and allegations from former IPL chief Lalit Modi that the 2009 auction had been rigged by Chennai Super Kings to accommodate former England allrounder Andrew Flintoff. Once IPL 5 got underway, scandals involving corruption, violence and drugs dominated off-field coverage of the IPL. This season, we can all do without that.
The week leading up to IPL 6 has seen its share of problems, however. Sri Lankan players will not be allowed to play at Chennai's MA Chidambaram Stadium following the flat-out ruling from Tamil Nadu chief minister J Jayalithaa that Sri Lankans will not be hosted in view of the prevailing anti-Sinhalese sentiments in the state. Five franchise have been dealt with injury blows, not least Delhi Daredevils who will be without Kevin Pietersen, Jesse Ryder and Varun Aaron. The list of injured had reached eight on Saturday.
Following its two weakest television seasons (2011, 2012), the IPL needs a viewership boost. This season the matches will be aired on two channels - MAX and Sony Six - which is expected to increase spectatorship. More eyeballs equals to more profit. But does that necessarily mean good on-field cricket? IPL 5 saw some very competitive matches, with 19 matches going into the final over and 10 settled off the last ball, but delivered an all-India average Television Viewer Rating of 3.45 against IPL 4's 3.51.
I know next to nothing about marketing, but dipping ratings will have rankled the franchise owners and sponsors. The tournament organizers are believed to be giving IPL 6 their all, especially considering the Indian team's blow-hot-blow-cold run in the past year (seriously, that 4-0 win over a third-rate Australia carries little weight). The BCCI sees the IPL as its cash cow and that's where a lot of the effort is being trained, unsurprisingly. So expect some more crash, bang, wallop and whole lot of last-over finishes.
Looking back at IPL 5, there were some notable achievements. Tournament records for the highest first, third, fourth and sixth-wicket partnerships were set, Virender Sehwag became the first player to score five consecutive half-centuries and Chris Gayle again wowed ad finished with two records: most sixes (57) and most runs (733) in a season. The bowlers too had their say, refreshingly; Sunil Narine bamboozled batsmen en route to the Player-of-the-Series award, Morne Morkel bowled a tremendous 160 dot balls out of 378 deliveries sent down, and 26 Man-of-the-Match awards went to bowlers. We can all do with a bit more of that, can't we?
From a spectator's perspective, as long the cricket speaks loudest, the IPL will be a hit. For that, here's hoping for an engaging, cricket-centric IPL 6. India, are you ready?
Have your say: Will RCB finally win the IPL? Will Mumbai's off-season changes and acquisitions result in IPL glory? Or will KKR retain the title?