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POWER PLAYERS: Clockwise from top left: David Warner, Hardik Pandya, Sanju Samson, Rohit Sharma, Ben Stokes and Mahendra Singh Dhoni are expected to stamp their authority as they chase the spoils in IPL 2023. The 74-match event spread over 52 days begins on March 31. Image Credit: Sportzpics for IPL

Soaring sixes, screaming crowds, dancing cheerleaders and cheering celebrities: it’s IPL time again. Get ready for all that razzmatazz in the cricket stadiums of India.

The Indian Premier League returns for the 16th season with the best cricketers in the world. Thousands of spectators will throng the stadiums, and millions will remain glued to the television sets as high-voltage contests unfold.

Last year, IPL became the fourth biggest sports league in the world behind America’s National Football League (NFL), English Premier League (EPL) and Major League Baseball (MLB) in the US. The IPL’s ability to reinvent itself has kept the interest alive despite the interruption due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Two new teams — the Gujarat Titans and the Lucknow Super Giants — helped rev up the competition last year. More changes take effect this year, and they are bound to dial up the excitement.

How the impact player rule works

So what’s different in IPL 2023, which starts on March 31? There have been some tweaks and two significant rule changes. The most revolutionary one is the impact player rule that allows the full-fledged substitution of a player at any stage of the game. Much like in football, basketball, rugby and other games. That will undoubtedly have an impact on the result of matches.

The other one is the expansion of the Decision Review System (DRS) to challenge wide and no-ball decisions. The rule debuted in the Women’s Premier League (WPL) 2023, and the IPL 2023 will follow suit. Captains will welcome that since it will help clear doubts and heartburn. It will come in handy in tight matches, especially the final overs.

Another welcome development is the return of home and away games. Teams will love that since the home advantage on familiar pitches with the full-throated support of fans can work wonders. The Chennai Super Kings and the Mumbai Indians will vouch for that.

Why fans matter in IPL

Fans are what keep the IPL alive. The buzz was missing during the Covid-19 pandemic when matches were played in empty stadiums. The players missed the cheers and jeers that propel them to perform better.

More importantly, it’s the fans who turn players into stars. Without their admiration and adulation, players remain players. Fan worship makes them celebrities with huge social media followings and megabucks from endorsements. So supporters matter.

IPL 2023 Groups
Image Credit: Gulf News

The Indian board (Board for Control of Cricket in India) and the franchises know that. That’s why franchises take good care of the supporters with fan zones and contests. So restoring home and away matches will help increase the fan bases. Each team will play seven of their 14 league matches at home.

Ahead of the 52-day competition across 12 venues, teams have traded some players and bought others in the auction. New Zealand’s white ball-cricket captain Kane Williamson, who led the Sunrisers Hyderabad last year, will wear the colours of the Gujarat Titans. Jason Holder (Rajasthan Royals), Shardul Thakur (Kolkata Knight Riders), and Lockie Ferguson (Kolkata Knight Riders) will take the field for new teams.

Ben Stokes, Sam Curran in new teams

The biggest switch has been for Ben Stokes, who moves from the Rajasthan Royals to the Chennai Super Kings. But the Mahendra Singh Dhoni-led team will miss the England captain’s services if they make the final. Stokes has said he will fly back early to prepare for the Test against Ireland.

That could be true of Sam Curran too, if he’s named in the England Test squad. The England allrounder, who played for CSK, was bought by the Punjab Kings for $2.23 million, making him the most expensive player in IPL history.

Some players like the South Africans will be late for the IPL contests as they play the Netherlands in the One-Day Internationals at home. So is the case with Sri Lankans and New Zealanders who are playing a limited-overs series in New Zealand.

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Image Credit: Gulf News

One new arrival in the news is Matthew Short, the Player of the Tournament in Australia’s Big Bash League. He comes to the IPL after scoring 458 runs for the Adelaide Strikers, making him the second-highest scorer in the tournament at an average of 35.23 and a strike rate of 144.47. Impressive figures, but the IPL could be a different kettle of fish as another Australian player Tim David found out last year on his debut for he Mumbai Indians. Some players take time to find their feet on the slow, low pitches of India.

Short comes in for Jonny Bairstow, whose long recovery from a freak injury prevents him from turning out for the Punjab Kings. The England wicketkeeper is just one of several prominent players missing this season through injury.

Bumrah, Bairstow and the injured

Jasprit Bumrah has been ruled out, and that’s a big blow to the Mumbai Indians, who will also be without Jhye Richardson. But skipper Rohit Sharma will be glad to welcome England’s Jofra Archer and new arrival Australia’s Cameron Green.

Two captains are also on the injury list — Rishabh Pant and Shreyas Iyer. Delhi Capitals will be without Pant, who is recovering from injuries following a car crash. He has handed over the reins to David Warner, who led Sunrisers Hyderabad to the 2016 title. Kolkata Knight Riders will be captained by Nitish Rana, who will keep the seat warm for Iyer, who is yet to recover from a back injury.

Josh Hazlewood (Royal Challengers Bangalore), Prasidh Krishna (Rajasthan Royals), Rajat Patidar (Royal Challengers Bangalore), Obed McCoy (Rajasthan Royals), Mukesh Choudhary (Chennai Super Kings) and Mohsin Khan (Lucknow Super Giants) are some of the players nursing injuries. It remains to be seen how many of them will recover to play the IPL this season.

Gujarat Lions, Rajasthan Royals and the Dhoni farewell

But that won’t matter because there’s enough star quality in the 10 IPL teams. This season could be the swansong for Dhoni, who steered CSK to four IPL and two Champions League titles. He will want to sign off on a high. Virat Kohli, who overcame a prolonged run-drought, should be raring to go as Faf du Plessis-led RCB continue to chase their maiden title. Captain Rohit Sharma will aim to lift the Mumbai Indians after they plummeted to the bottom of the points table last year.

Hardik Pandya, who led Gujarat Lions to the title on debut, will be keen to ensure that last year’s win is no flash in the pan, while the losing finalists Rajasthan Royals, helmed by Sanju Samson, will hope for a repeat of the 2008 triumph. The rest are no pushovers, and that include two-time winners Kolkata Knight Riders and Sunrisers Hyderabad (they won in 2009 as Deccan Chargers).

That makes for some titanic tussles as the franchises gear up for 70 league matches. The race for the semifinal spots begins Friday. It will be a hair-raising ride.

Five players to watch

Ben Stokes of Chennai Super Kings

Ben Stokes
Ben Stokes will initially play only as a batsman for the Chennai Super Kings as he is recovering from a knee injury. Image Credit: Sportzpics for IPL

Allrounder Ben Stokes, who guided England to 50-over and Twenty20 World Cups, comes to IPL 2023 to fire Chennai Super Kings’ charge towards their fifth title. With CSK skipper Mahendra Singh Dhoni playing in his final year, Stokes could emerge as the leader of the pack. His weak knee and a gruelling international schedule could affect his fitness. The left-hander could walk into any side as a specialist batter and be a trump card for CSK.

Sam Curran of Punjab Kings

Sam Curran
Sam Curran’s allround skills will play a pivotal role in the fortunes of the Punjab Kings in IPL 2023. Image Credit: Sportzpics for IPL

England’s Player of the Tournament in the Twenty20 World Cup can help Punjab Kings step up to the next level. His left-arm swing and big-hitting could lift Punjab, who paid $2.26 million to acquire Curran, making him the most expensive player in IPL history. His consistency and temperament will help Curran repay Punjab, who are chasing their first title in 16 editions.

Shubman Gill of Gujarat Titans

Shubman Gill
Shubman Gill is in the middle of a purple patch, and that should help the Gujarat Titans as they defend their maiden IPL title in 2023. Image Credit: Sportzpics for IPL

The opener wasn’t in form during Gujarat Titans’s title-winning run in their debut season last year. However, his stunning show for India, scoring a century in Twenty20 and a double century in the One Day Internationals and joining an elite group of players with tons in all three formats, should give him the confidence to spearhead Gujarat’s title defence. Gill is strong against pace and spin, and his sublime timing should help provide good starts to his team.

Virat Kohli of Royal Challengers Bangalore

Virat Kohli
Virat Kohli has run into form after a prolonged slump, and that’s good news for the Royal Challengers Bangalore as they chase their maiden IPL title. Image Credit: Sportzpics for IPL

The talismanic Indian batter is a different player after rediscovering his scoring touch. His maiden Twenty20 century against Afghanistan in Dubai during the Asian Cup eased his nerves, as Kohli went on to score runs in all formats. This is his chance to help Royal Challengers Bangalore win their maiden title.

Jos Buttler of Rajasthan Royals

Jos Buttler was in tremendous form for the Rajasthan Royals last year, winning the Orange cap for the top scorer. He will be looking to repeat the heroics this year. Image Credit: Sportzpics for IPL

The Rajasthan Royals opener is blessed with exquisite timing, which has tormented bowlers worldwide. Jos Buttler can play proper cricketing shots and even some unorthodox ones too. The England white-ball captain received the Orange Cap for the top-scorer in the last edition with 863 runs. He will be eager to continue from where he left off as the Royals seek to make amends after the loss in the final.

Matthew Short of Punjab Kings

Matthew Short
Matthew Short aims to replicate his scoring feat in the Big Bash League as he gets ready to make his IPL debut for Punjab Kings. Image Credit: Reuters

The Australian, who replaces Johnny Bairstow in the Punjab Kings, will look to repeat his Big Bash League performance in the IPL. The uncapped all-rounder was adjudged the Player of the Tournament in Australia’s BBL, scoring 458 runs, including a century and 11 wickets with his off-spin. Short might be short on international experience, but he has the ability to revel in his maiden IPL season. That could work well for Punjab.

Five teams to watch

Chennai Super Kings

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Chennai Super Kings players celebrate after winning the IPL at the Dubai International Stadium on October 15, 2021. They beat Kolkata Knight Riders in the final. Image Credit: Sportzpics for IPL

The four-time champions will be eager to give the retiring captain Mahendra Singh Dhoni a winning send-off. CSK have been a force to reckon with for the last 15 editions, barring the two when they were banned. They were not the same force the previous year after the change in captaincy midway through the season. With Ravindra Jadeja remaining in the team, CSK’s WhistlePodu (blow the whistle in Tamil) fans will be confident of giving Dhoni a fitting farewell.

Mumbai Indians

Mumbai Indians players celebrate
Mumbai Indians players rejoice after their victory over the Chennai Super Kings in the 2019 Indian Premier League final at the Rajiv Gandhi International Cricket Stadium in Hyderabad, India, on May 13, 2019. Image Credit: AFP

The five-time winners will be hampered by the absence of their strike bowler Jasprit Bumrah. But the return of Jofra Archer after recovering from his injury is good news as the lethal England pacer is a perfect replacement. Captain Rohit Sharma may be worried about Suryakumar Yadav’s wretched run, but Mumbai pack enough punch to make the playoff. They have a strong batting line-up, which includes Ishan Kishan and Cameron Green, that should compensate for the bowling drawbacks.

Gujarat Titans

Hardik Pandya
Captain Hardik Pandya of the Gujarat Titans lifts the winners’ trophy after beating the Rajasthan Royals in the Tata Indian Premier League 2022 final at the Narendra Modi Stadium in Ahmedabad on May 29, 2022. Image Credit: Sportzpics for IPL

The allround team of defending champions Gujarat Titans with the shrewd Hardik Pandya at the helm makes them team to defeat. After a victorious debut last year, it might not be easy to repeat it as their rivals would have chalked out strategies to stop them. Gujarat should make the playoffs as opener Shubman Gill’s white-ball form has improved appreciably, besides the presence of lethal finishers David Miller and Pandya. They are one of the favourites to win this year.

Rajasthan Royals

2008: Rajasthan Royals bt Chennai Super Kings by three wickets at DY Patil Stadium. Player of the season: Shane Watson
Rajasthan Royals players with the IPL trophy after defeating the Chennai Super Kings in the final of the inaugural edition at the DY Patil Stadium in Mumbai, India, on June 1, 2008. Image Credit: Twitter

Champions of the inaugural edition, the Rajasthan Royals have not been able to scale the heights again, although they came very close last year, losing to the Gujarat Titans in the final. The current team under Sanju Samson have the strength and skill to clinch the trophy. Jos Buttler, who led the charge with 863 runs, should replicate the form if the Royals have to cross the line. Samson should also improve his consistency and avoid needless experimentation. Spinning duo Ravichandran Ashwin and Yuzvendra Chahal will be their trump cards.

Royal Challengers Bangalore

After several narrow misses over the past 15 seasons, the Royal Challengers will be the dark horses this time, with Virat Kohli regaining his touch. The former skipper’s poor form was also reflected in the team’s fortunes. Led by Faf du Plessis, RCB have a strong attack in Mohammed Siraj, Josh Hazlewood (still on the injured list), Wanindu Hasarnga and Harshal Patel. Much also depends on Glenn Maxwell’s form and the dangerous finisher Dinesh Karthik.

Who will win IPL 2023?

The 10 teams are so evenly matched that any of them can win the trophy. It makes picking the winners a tricky affair. The games are yet to start, and midway through the league phase we may get some idea of who will make the playoffs.

Winning is a habit, they say. But the Gujarat Titans cast that adage into the winds last year. Can they emulate the Chennai Super Kings and the Mumbai Indians with back-to-back triumphs? They have the team to do it, but it won’t be easy.

IPL is not just about winning, it’s the whole experience. So let’s leave the title chase to the teams and enjoy the cricket and all the razzmatazz. There’s no better entertainment than a good sporting action. Happy viewing!

The IPL 2023 schedule for league matches

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