Cricket’s biggest carnival – the Indian Premier League – is upon us. And it returns to its homeland after a successful sojourn to the UAE due to the pandemic last year.
Not everything remains the same as it was in the pre-pandemic world, though. Cluster-caravan formats, neutral venues, and a continued bio-secure bubble protocol stand out despite the tournament returning to India. Having said that, it is the last part of that statement that matters as the most lucrative T20 league across the globe returns to its motherland.
Over the course of the next eight weeks, the attention will be on a number of budding talents that traverse the different dimensions of the eight teams taking the park. A certain few who have donned the national colours in recent times will be put under the acid test of leading their respective superstar-studded teams.
India's future captaincy candidates?
One wonders what would be that one piece of advice KL Rahul would have for both Sanju Samson and Rishabh Pant, with the latter two set to don the captaincy hat for the very first time in this year’s IPL.
Two roads digressed along different routes for both these players before eventually meeting at the point of being appointed the skipper of their respective sides. While Samson takes over the leadership of Rajasthan Royals from Steve Smith, Pant steps in for a full stint as captain courtesy of Shreyas Iyer’s shoulder dislocation ruling him out of Delhi Capitals’ IPL 2021 campaign.
And speaking of Rahul, who enters his second season as the captain of the Punjab Kings ship, the focus would perhaps be as much on his batting as his leadership.
The Kings’ batting coach Wasim Jaffer did suggest that Rahul would embrace an aggressive approach. Given his diminishing strike rates post that bumper season in 2018, the swashbuckling opener will be looking to buck that trend.
By his own admission, the change in his approach to playing the anchor role last season stemmed out of his entry into the leadership role. Given the kind of “confidence player” that he is, one wonders how seamless will the switch back to an aggressive approach be, especially if he fails to get a big knock across his first couple of outings.
This puts into perspective the tale of two other keeper-batsmen – Samson and Pant. The craving for consistency from the bat of Samson is well-known, and last season’s returns were the perfect reflection of a skewed campaign.
A couple of match-winning blitzes at Sharjah were followed by an array of single-digit scores for a good part of the tournament before some parity was restored towards the back end of it.
Samson’s scores reflect a direct correlation and causation with the Royals’ performances, and whether the mantle of captaincy will bring about an upswing in this regard is going to be under scrutiny.
Following his unfortunate removal from the Indian team despite a selfless act of acceleration through the middle-overs during the T20I conquest of Australia last December, Samson will be keen to make an impact.
Will captaincy tell on Pant's batting returns?
A modest campaign was what Rishabh Pant left the UAE shores with, but upon his return from Australia, he was a different player. Two high-impact knocks in a watershed Test series victory and a consistent accumulation of runs in the home season later, Pant finds himself as an indispensable member in national colours.
Perhaps exactly why, then, that the Capitals management have entrusted the southpaw with the responsibility of leading a well-knit unit despite the presence of seasoned campaigners such as Ravichandran Ashwin, Ajinkya Rahane, and Shikhar Dhawan.
Peter Parker, alias Spiderman once received a strong bit of advice from his uncle Ben: "With great power comes great responsibility". Some amusing stump mic chatter from Pant might have fetched him the nickname of 'Spiderman', but the quote holds good for the southpaw as he steps into the shoes of captaincy.
This audacious lad isn’t all madness and pyrotechnics – perceptions can truly be deceiving even if Pant’s body language and keenness from behind the wickets tell you otherwise.
The method to his madness is evident in the fact that he does calculate his risks and execute it accordingly, even with bat in hand. Pant is certainly not the almighty slogger that the average viewer may have once deemed him to be. Given the naturally confident nature he approaches a game with, it would be a massive surprise if the hard yards of captaincy have a telling impact on the downside as far as his batting returns are concerned.
Where does this leave the three aforementioned individuals as tacticians, though? The sheer lack of a sufficient sample size suggests that a full season at the helm is what they require before a judgement is passed.
All three remain their side’s primary batsmen (most certainly among the Indian pool) and will have the task of donning the keeper’s gloves as well (although Rahul and Samson have Nicholas Pooran and Jos Buttler as their respective failsafe options).
How will they hold their own amidst a battery of superstars? How bold will they remain in terms of making tough selection calls? What about their partnership with their head coaches who remain superstars in their own right? A positive answer to all of these questions could well reflect where their teams stand at the end of it all.
Other potential leaders?
The buck doesn’t stop with these three though – Shubman Gill is very much a part of the leadership group, as Kolkata Knight Riders’ head coach Brendon McCullum mentioned last season. Tipped as the future captain of the side, he is likely to be a constant feature in the team’s round-table conference during a game’s crunch situations.
Hardik Pandya was constantly in Shardul Thakur’s ears during the high-voltage fourth T20I against England last month – can we see a future leader emerge from the shadows of the Kohlis and the Rohits?
Come the 9th of April, and the 14th edition of the IPL could prove to be more critical than ever in identifying India’s future leaders. The sharp tactical nous and the contributions of this potential core group of the Indian cricket team (say five years down the line) will be ever so closely under watch with the incumbent think tank of the Men in Blue on the wrong side of their thirties.
Will IPL 2021 be remembered as a season that throws up the country’s next potential skipper? Only time can tell.