Abu Dhabi: Fighting for credibility after being left devastated by a spot-fixing scandal, the glamorous but controversial Indian Premier League will roll out its seventh edition here from Wednesday with the promise of putting cricket first while keeping the drama and glitz to a bare minimum.
Defending champions Mumbai Indians, captained by Rohit Sharma, will square off against 2012 winners Kolkata Knight Riders, led by veteran opener Gautam Gambhir, in the event-opener at the Sheikh Zayed Stadium here.
The UAE is hosting the high-profile T20 event`s first leg from April 16 to 30 owing to a clash of dates with the Indian general elections and security concerns emanating from that. The tournament will return to India on May 2 after being assured of security in states where voting would be over by that time.
The razzmatazz, which has made IPL a magnet for both the fans and the cricketers world over, is not expected to just vanish because of the unsavoury scandal but the organisers have promised to tone down the glamour bit.
To start with, there would not be any opening ceremony this year, replaced by a gala dinner for the teams where Bollywood actor Shah Rukh Khan, co-owner of the Kolkata Knight Riders franchise, is one among the stars who is expected to perform.
But when the curtains go up on perhaps the most popular domestic cricket tournament in the world, focus will also be on the off-field matters in the backdrop of the ongoing Supreme Court monitored investigation into the betting scandal in which some big names of the league have been implicated.
For one, BCCI President N Srinivasan and Chennai Super Kings co-owner N Srinivasan has been forced to step aside and the event`s COO Sundar Raman is also under the scanner. Its reputation might have taken a beating but what is likely to remain unchanged is the fans` adulation for the IPL.
Even though UAE is foreign land, finding a fan-base for the tournament has not been much of an issue due to the huge expat population which has shown its support to the event by buying off tickets within a few days of them going on sale.
But questions have been raised about the choice of UAE as a venue to host the event given its history of being a hot-bed of match-fixers. The IPL organisers have tried to justify it by saying that the decision was based purely on logistical grounds. The negative buzz at the start of the tournament notwithstanding, cricket will take centrestage when the matches start and focus would be on the multi-million dollar buys who would be aiming to justify their fat pay cheques.
Among them would be Indian all-rounder Yuvraj Singh, the costliest buy of this year's auction who coped a massive fan backlash after his flop show in the recent World T20 final. Bought for Rs 14 crore by the Royal Challengers Bangalore, Yuvraj would be under pressure to prove his worth in the backdrop of the World T20 debacle.
Also, England swashbuckler Kevin Pietersen, bought for Rs nine crore by the Delhi Daredevils, would be aiming for a fresh start after his national career was abruptly cut short when the ECB decided to dump him for issues other then just cricket. Wicketkeeper-batsman Dinesh Karthik would also be watched closely after Delhi splurged more than Rs 12 crore to hire his services.
Not to forget the domestic players, who would be aiming to come into national reckoning riding on good IPL performances. The IPL has been nothing short of a boon for them given the quick buck they stand to make besides gaining popularity with just a couple of rocking knocks or magical spells.
The tournament, which will culminate with the summit clash on June 1 in Mumbai, offers a mind-boggling prize cheque of Rs 10 crore to the winning team out of a total purse of Rs 30 crore. In tomorrow's high-profile clash, which seems perfect to kick off the tournament, Mumbai, despite being the defending champions, are slight favourites even though the impressive balance that KKR seems to have attained after some smart buys in the players' auction.
KKR, which retained just two players from last season's team (Gambhir and spinner Sunil Narine), seems quite solid with the inclusion of some value players such as Australian express bowler Pat Cummins and Indian pacer Umesh Yadav.
Fitness-permitting, both of them can make a huge difference to the side' fortunes even though the batting would continue to rely heavily on Gambhir, veteran Jacques Kallis and the off-colour Yousuf Pathan. Mumbai more or less retained the squad that won the trophy last year but strengthened the team by bringing in Australian veteran Michael Hussey, who has previously only played for the Chennai Super Kings.
The other teams in fray also seem to finally settling into a mould after trying and testing of the past seasons. Besides Delhi, Kings XI Punjab also looks solid this time after floundering in the seasons gone by. They have roped in the likes of Virender Sehwag, Cheteshwar Pujara and Australian pacer Mitchell Johnson to bolster the line-up.
The Rajasthan Royals have stayed true to their stance of putting faith in enterprising players, with a few big names such as Shane Watson thrown in. Cricket aside, focus would also be on numerous anti-corruption measures which the IPL Governing Council has unveiled to keep the tournament clean and controversy-free.
One such important step was to rope in the ICC's help to thwart any unsavoury element coming close to the franchises or the players. The league previously had an internal mechanism in place which came under severe criticism from several former players and observers of the game.
Given the drama it generates both on and off the field, fans would surely be hooked on for the nearly two-month event but the organisers would desperately hope that the spectre of corruption stays far away from it to restore some of the lost credibility.