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Sport

Cricket's speedwagon comes to town again

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HURRICANE: Chris Gayle took IPL-4 by storm with his power hitting. Expect more from his blade this season

On April 2, 2011, Mahendra Singh Dhoni and his boys fulfilled a long-cherished dream of every cricket fan in this country as India were crowned world champions after a gap of 28 years. The fourth edition of the Indian Premier League (IPL) followed soon after, and the crown on the head slipped a little. The thirst for quality cricket had probably been quenched. The fatigue factor had set in as television viewership took a beating and so did ticket sales in the stadiums. The critics rushed in to run down the IPL, blaming the league for injuries to top players and the subsequent loss of form.

Indian cricket has, since then, gone downhill. The highs of the World Cup are a distant memory after successive 0-4 Test series whitewashes in England and Australia. More than the defeats it's the perceived lack of fight by the players that has turned off the fans.

As we get ready for the fifth edition of the IPL, there is cynicism but there is hope too. There's a feeling that the tournament might just be the distraction the Indian public needs. IPL-1 acted as a soothing balm over the wounds of the bitter 2007 World Cup exit. Of course, Rajasthan Royals, underdogs of the first edition, defeating the proverbial Goliath in the MSD-captained Chennai Super Kings set the TRP ratings zooming. The league soon settled down into an exciting mix of entertainment.
So what does IPL-5 have in store for us? For one, this tournament has always seen as much drama on the field as off it. Remember IPL-3 ? Its final coincided with the dismissal of the league's charismatic founder Lalit Modi.

The prelude to IPL-5 began with the termination of the Kochi Tuskers Kerala franchise by the BCCI in September last year. That was just the beginning as Pune Warriors threatened to pull out of this year's tournament over cancer-stricken Yuvraj Singh's replacement and their auction purse. The Sahara India-owned franchise walked out of the IPL-5 auction leading to uncertainty over the structure of the tournament. However, good sense prevailed and the Warriors stayed on, clearing the decks for a nine-team competition.

Former India and Kolkata Knight Riders captain Sourav Ganguly, who played in IPL-4 for the Warriors as the replacement for an injured Ashish Nehra, will be seen in the role of captain-cum-mentor of the team.

This year's tournament will miss the charming Shane Warne, who called it quits last year. Rahul Dravid, who announced his international retirement a few weeks back, will take over from Warne as the captain-cum-coach-cummentor of the side. As one marquee Aussie player took a bow, another one entered the arena - Australia's Test and ODI skipper Michael Clarke is all set to make his IPL debut with the Pune Warriors this year. Having resisted the lure of the premier T20 competition these last five years, Clarke finally succumbed to the league's charm, and of course dollars, by signing up as the replacement for Yuvraj Singh, who is undergoing treatment in the United States.

There has been the usual chopping-and-changing in the sides after the recent IPL auction in Bangalore. Ravindra Jadeja was always going to be the hottest name on sale given the dearth of spinning all-rounders in the country. But Jadeja's story is astonishing to say the least. The 21-year-old who was banned from the IPL for a year for trying to broker a deal is today one of the IPL's most expensive buys. Both Chennai Super Kings and Deccan Chargers bid aggressively for the Saurashtra all-rounder and the player went into the auction tie-breaker at $2 million. If sources are to be believed, former IPL champions Super Kings finally clinched the deal which ended up being worth close to $6 million! There is no doubt that Jadeja is more than a useful left-arm spinner and his big-hitting prowess has also increased substantially over the last couple of seasons. However, it remains to be seen whether he can justify the $6 million tag.

The other major move this season was by Sri Lankan skipper Mahela Jayawardene. The former Kochi player was picked by the Delhi Daredevils for $1. 4 million. Before getting Jayawardene on board, the GMR-owned team had already bought the explosive Kevin Pietersen from Deccan Chargers. These two will add to the existing line-up of Virender Sehwag and David Warner making Delhi's batting line-up an explosive one. Delhi completed the coup by bringing in New Zealand skipper Ross Taylor from Rajasthan Royals but suffered a setback when Daredevils' very own Morne Morkel delivered a cruel blow, injuring Taylor during the Wellington Test early this week. The Kiwi skipper could be laid low for four weeks at least.

Among other changes, the man to watch out will be South African opener Richard Levi. The stocky batsman came from nowhere to blow New Zealand away in a T20 match with a 45-ball century - the fastest ever in a T20 international. If the knock had come just a little earlier, Levi could have fetched big bucks at the auction instead of going unsold at a base price of $50, 000. He was picked by Mumbai Indians as replacement for Andrew Symonds who has retired from all forms of cricket.

Talking about players going unsold, curtains were drawn on the IPL careers of the man with the regal touch, VVS Laxman, England's James Anderson and Matt Prior as well as Mark Boucher of South Africa.
One of the concerns for all IPL teams this season is the packed international calendar. All the top players from Sri Lanka, England, Australia and West Indies will be playing for their countries and will miss a majority of the IPL matches. The additional one-off

T20 game between India and South Africa in Johannesburg on March 30 hasn't helped matters either. The pre-season camps of most of the teams will begin in earnest only after the Indian players return home.

The coaches across the teams are still ruing the fact that there is not enough time for the players to bond and perform as a unit. With the fight for the playoff berth hinging on that one crucial win, it'll be important for all teams to get off to a winning start - with or without their foreign imports. This in turn gives the lesser-known foreign talents and even Indian hands the opportunity to make their mark - like Kings XI Punjab's Paul Valthaty last season or the likes of Shadab Jakati and Swapnil Asnodkar in the past.

The favourites on paper once again seem to be the big three - Chennai Super Kings, Royal Challengers Bangalore and Mumbai Indians. All three have beefed up their batting department with homegrown talent and also have a potent spin arsenal. Jadeja will add to the strength of champions CSK while the spectacular form of Virat Kohli should buoy last year's runners-up RCB.

Mumbai Indians would be a little worried about the fitness of their skipper Sachin Tendulkar who has gone to London to treat his injured toe. However, the vibe emanating from the Mumbai camp is one of confidence as they're sure of their skipper's availability for all the matches this season. Post his 100th international ton, Tendulkar, with a new hairstyle to boot, would surely be eager to stamp his class this season.

Off the pitch, the glamour quotient will definitely rise with pop icon Katy Perry set to perform at the opening ceremony in Chennai on April 3. Adding star power to that will be Amitabh Bachchan, Salman Khan and Priyanka Chopra from the world of Bollywood.

IPL-5 promises to be the redemption song of Indian cricket. Let the games begin.

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