Just over a fortnight into the IPL and it is clear that the fourth edition of the immensely popular tournament has done much to bring out the best of the Twenty20 format. The competition has seen everything – huge hits, big scores including hundreds, splendid bowling performances including two five wicket hauls, fluctuating fortunes among the 10 participating teams and entertainment of a high value complete with the glitz and glamour associated with the IPL since its inaugural edition in 2008.
The lead has changed hands rapidly and the inclusion of two franchisees has made the tournament even more competitive. There are no clear favourites when it comes to the Twenty20 format and this is very true of the IPL. Just six points separate the current top of the table team – Mumbai Indians – from the bottom placed side – Deccan Chargers and one would not be surprised if the gap is bridged in next to no time. One would also not be surprised if the positions keep changing after every match such is the intensity of the competition. There is actually very little to choose between the teams and it is just about who performs better on the particular day.
When Twenty20 took root the theory was that it would be a format of, by and for the batsmen with the bowlers being willing slaves. Over the last couple of years we have seen this theory frequently blown to smithereens and the current edition of the IPL has only served to augment this. Sure, we have had fours and sixes, 20 to 25 runs hit in an over, totals of 180 plus have been chased down successfully, totals of 200 plus have been notched and just the other day we had a veritable run feast in the game between Delhi Daredevils and King's XI Punjab during which 433 runs were scored. On the other hand we have had the same Delhi Daredevils side being bowled out for 95 well inside 20 overs while Rajasthan Royals fared even worse against Kolkata Knight Riders being shot out for 81 in just 15.2 overs. Kochi Tuskers have defended a total of 132 against Kolkata Knight Riders while Pune Warriors came within a ball of defending a total of 118 against Mumbai Indians. And while we have had three hundreds, there have also been two five wicket hauls – a rarity in Twenty20 – besides two four-wicket hauls.
The message is clear. If the batsmen have become innovative the bowlers are no less sharp with their counter strategies. Even with the restrictions - only four overs per bowler, the one bouncer rule, umpires being extremely strict on wides and no balls – the bowlers have not lost heart and have come up with new tactics to defeat the batsman's intentions to hit every ball for the maximum. The fact is that there is pressure on the batsmen too with there being no time to settle down. He has to hit the ball from the word go and as is well known that is not always possible. There could be a few big hits but ultimately there could also be a case of the rash or miscued stroke or missing the ball completely and he could be out bowled, caught, stumped and so on.
Perhaps the most heartening aspect of the IPL is that has given a big stage for unknown young players to perform and gain recognition. Many of the youngsters seen in action for the various teams have been languishing at the domestic level before participation in the IPL has guaranteed them a wider audience and some of them have gone to become household names.
To be candid had anyone heard of Manpreet Gony, Swapnil Asnodkar, Ashok Dinda, Abhishek Nayar and Wriddhiman Saha before the IPL commenced? Yet through sheer force of performance they became familiar names in cricketing circles. Not at all overawed by the big names they were up against they batted and bowled fearlessly and with a lot of enthusiasm. By the end of the first couple of tournaments they were the subject of TV interviews, feature stories in leading newspapers and the cricket websites went to town about their exploits. Nayar, Saha, Dinda and Gony forced their way into the Indian team and the presence of so many promising young players underlined the bench strength of the Indian team at least as far as the game's newest and shortest format is concerned.
In the current edition Paul Valthaty of King's XI Punjab has been hogging the headlines for his superlative performances. Before the tournament commenced the mention of his name could well have been followed by the query "Paul who?". Now he is the hottest name among cricketing discussions battling it out for the orange cap with Sachin Tendulkar no less. And while Valthaty has been the star of the competition so far other relatively unknown players too have caught the eye notably Bharat Chipli of Deccan Chargers, Ambati Rayudu of Mumbai Indians and Srikant Wagh of Pune Warriors.
Surely more relatively little known players will make their presence felt before the final on May 28.