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PLAY THE FIELD

The season starts here. . .

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It's the final season before the big shake-up in the Indian Premier League. The world's premier Twenty20 cricket league is already in its sixth year now and as per rules, a majority of the players will be put back into the Auctions Pool ahead of the seventh season.

Over the course of the last five years, the IPL has had both highs and lows. The fairytale story of Rajasthan Royals winning the title, the tiff with the Union home ministry which took the tournament off shore to South Africa, Chennai Super Kings and Mahendra Singh Dhoni's dream run, the rise and subsequent fall of 2009 champions Deccan Chargers and last year Shah Rukh Khan's Kolkata Knightriders' accession to the the top of the pile.

So what does 2013 have in store for IPL? The start, for one, hasn't been the most promising. Tamil Nadu chief minister Jayalalitha's decision not to allow Sri Lankan cricketers to play in Chennai has put most IPL franchises in a bind.

Teams like Delhi Daredevils, newly-christened Sunrisers Hyderabad and Pune Warriors will be the most effected as they are led by Mahela Jayawardene, Kumar Sangakkara and Angelo Mathews respectively. Lasith Malinga has always been a key weapon for Mumbai Indians while Tillakaratne Dilshan and Muttiah Muralitharan are critical components of the Royal Challengers Bangalore lineup.

The IPL governing council's decision not to shift matches out of Chennai means most of the franchises will not be able to field full-strength teams for Super Kings' home games. Discontent has been brewing quietly amongst the franchises as they feel IPL games need to be shifted out of BCCI president N. Srinivasan's home turf.

Relocation of games is nothing new in this tournament as the Telengana issue had forced the Chargers to play all their home games out of Hyderabad in 2010 while two low-intensity bomb blasts outside the Chinnaswamy stadium in 2010 meant that the IPL semifinals were shifted from Bangalore to Mumbai.

The off-field controversies aside, the teams now have to plan for the season to come. The international cricket calendar is so tightly packed that most teams won't have full squads at their disposal just days before their opening match in IPL-6.

Even before the season could kick off, injuries have thrown a spanner in the works of most of the top teams. Delhi Daredevils seem to be worst affected on paper at the moment. A knee injury forced England's Kevin Pietersen - the X-factor in the Daredevils lineup as he so aptly displayed last year - to return early from the New Zealand tour and has benched him for the entire IPL. That was followed by the brutal assault on Kiwi allrounder Jesse Ryder who is in induced coma now.

In just eight matches last season, Pietersen amassed 305 runs at an average of 61 with a striker rate of over 147 and this year the Englishman was supposed to be available for at least 11 games. The latest setback has forced Daredevils scrambling to find Plan B.

The Daredevils thought they had bought intelligently at the auction by buying big-hitting Ryder from the Pune Warriors in the Player Auction this year, as the Kiwi was supposed to replace Pietersen in the middle of the season. Ryder, now, has been ruled out of the entire season and is battling for his life. The Daredevils will now have to search for a replacement just days ahead of their opening fixture against Kolkata Knightriders on April 3.

Other teams are not without their injury worries. Pune Warriors had achieved a coup of sorts by bring aboard in-form Australian skipper Michael Clarke during the auction. He has been ruled out of the tournament due to a recurrence of a back problem that kept him out of the Delhi Test recently.

Fresh start


The IPL-6 will prove to be a test of character for two men - Delhi's Virender Sehwag and Gautam Gambhir. The two openers have endured their toughest season in international cricket as with their form deserting them, both the openers were dropped from the Indian side.

IPL has always been a stage where both Sehwag and Gambhir expressed themselves openly. It's quite ironical that the sixth edition of the IPL will open with two of them facing against each other.
The tournament will be an ideal balm for the hurting players from Down Under. After a 4-0 whitewash at the hands of India, most Australian cricketers have been forced to go back to the drawing board, including the likes of Shane Watson and David Warner.

The duo desperately needs to get back some confidence ahead of the Ashes this summer and IPL-6 will be the perfect opportunity to do that. Watson became a household name after his pyrotechnics with the Royals in the opening season while Warner managed to get his foothold into international cricket after fabulous first few seasons with the Daredevils.

Glen Maxwell was the only million-dollar-buy at the auction this year but is yet to set the world alight with his performance. He got a taste of India in the Test series and experience should hold him in good stead as he turns out for the Mumbai Indians.
The men from South Africa though have no such issues. The Proteas are at the top of the ladder in the ICC Test rankings and it is thanks to the world-class players like Dale Steyn, Jacques Kallis, AB de Villiers and Morne Morkel - all of whom are crucial components in their IPL franchises.

For the young Indian cricketers though, it'll be another opportunity to enhance their reputations. Virat Kohli has been handed the reins of the Royal Challengers and it will be up to him to make a case for himself in front of the national selectors - to prove that he may be an ideal replacement for Dhoni when the time comes.

Murali Vijay, R Ashwin and Ravindra Jadeja were the stars of the Test series triumph and will be take that confidence into the tournament for the Super Kings. The Chennai side looks the one to beat this season with Dhoni finding his touch over the course of the series against Australia, both as a batsman and as a skipper.

For others like Ajinkya Rahane, Ishant Sharma, Shikhar Dhawan and Bhuvneshwar Kumar, it'll be important to perform and remain in the scheme of things of Team India. Plenty of other Indian young guns will be looking to make a mark, like under-19 captain Unmukt Chand who has been in spectacular form with back-toback hundreds in the Syed Mushtaq Ali T20 tournament.

All the cricketers will have dual motivation this year as a good show in IPL-6 will increase their value for the big auction next year. So expect the cricketers to shake things up before the big shake-up !

Six things to watch out for in IPL-6


Missing Lankans in Chennai

While the issue will not prove a big concern for the home team Chennai Super Kings, at least three others will have a lot on their plate during their games in Chennai. Delhi Daredevils, Sunrisers Hyderabad and Sahara Pune Warriors are all led by Sri Lankans, namely Mahela Jayawardene, Kumar Sangakkara and Angelo Matthews respectively.

Sun rises for Hyderabad


After much back-and-forth, the IPL snapped ties with Deccan Chronicle and the Hyderabad team Deccan Chargers' run ended this year. The Kalanithi Maran-owned Sun TV network bought the Hyderabad franchise and rechristened it Sunrisers Hyderabad. The team management will be handled by Kris Srikkanth, Tom Moody and VVS Laxman. Most of the Chargers'players were retained including skipper Kumar Sangakkara.

Young brigade ready to storm the stage


Led by India under-19 skipper Unmukt Chand, the youngsters will look to leave a mark in the premier Twenty20 competition. Chand has already warmed up with successive tons in Syed Mushtaq Ali T20 tournament. Others like Baba Aprajith, Harmeet Singh and Sandeep Sharma will look to leave their mark and increase their brand and stock value.

New territories


The tournament is all set to break new ground with Raipur and Ranchi making their debuts as IPL venues this year. Raipur will host a couple of Daredevils' games while Kolkata Knightriders will get a couple of games in MS Dhoni's hometown Ranchi.

Pak support staff


Cricketers from Pakistan might not be welcome in the IPL but a couple of teams have roped in former Pak players among their support staff. Mushtaq Ahmed is set to join the Daredevils as spin-bowling consultant while Sunrisers have hired Waqar Younis as the bowling coach.

Last chance?


This year's IPL might be the last chance for the fans to see some of the game's greats. These may include Kings XI Punjab skipper Adam Gilchrist and Royal Challengers Bangalore's Muttiah Muralitharan who will be 41 and 40 years old respectively. Even Sachin Tendulkar will turn 40 next month.

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