15 Things to Watch for When the IPL Moves Back from UAE to India
With the opening phase of this year's Indian Premier League having run its course in the United Arab Emirates, cricket's richest tournament will now shift to its home in India.
Despite concerns prior to the competition regarding the match-fixing history of the game in the UAE, the IPL has concluded a successful and thrilling two weeks in the Middle East that have provided the platform for an enthralling finish to the tournament.
Of course, the standouts of this year's campaign thus far have been Kings XI Punjab and the Chennai Super Kings, both of which look well-placed at this stage to reach the competition's final.
Conversely, the reigning champion Mumbai Indians have endured a torrid time to date and will look for a change in fortunes once back on home soil.
Now, with cricket's glamour event ready to resume in its birthplace, we examine 15 things to watch for in the second half of this year's IPL.
Note: All stats accurate as of April 30.
Teams Establishing Home Fortresses
While the opening phase of this year's tournament proved to be a success in the UAE, a decisive factor for the remainder of the 2014 IPL will be the return to home conditions for each of the eight sides.
Given that all three venues in the Middle East were essentially neutral grounds, the return to India will give each side a chance to build a fortress at home in the unique conditions inherent at each stadium.
For instance, a Bangalore side still searching for a large total in this year's tournament may relish the chance to return to the M. Chinnaswamy Stadium—a venue notorious for producing a glut of runs.
So while Chennai and Punjab have bolted ahead of their rivals, the outcome of this year's competition could be decided by how effectively each side adapts to conditions at home.
Can Anyone Find an Answer to Sunil Narine?
The Kolkata Knight Riders may not have reached the standard set by the tournament's leaders at this stage, but in Sunil Narine, the side have the world's most indomitable limited-overs bowler.
After stifling opponents during the recent ICC World Twenty20, Narine has continued his stunning exploits in the game's shortest format, claiming nine wickets from five matches in this year's IPL at a stunning economy rate of 5.35.
Since destroying the Mumbai Indians in the competition's opener with a sublime 4/20, the West Indian's abilities in the T20 arena are assuming almost mythical proportions.
Of course, the Kolkata outfit is lacking match-winning performers with the bat, but Narine's exploits will continue to keep Gautam Gambhir's team in the hunt should opposing batsmen continue to struggle against his impeccable accuracy.
The Drama of Super Overs
Tuesday's clash between the Rajasthan Royals and the Kolkata Knight Riders was a timely reminder of how slim the margins can be in T20 cricket.
After the teams were left tied following the conclusion of the scheduled overs, the subsequent super over also failed to separate the sides in a traditional manner, leaving Rajasthan as the victors thanks to a superior boundary count.
Such tense drama is only likely to escalate in the latter stages of this season's IPL, with the possible prospect of further super overs an extremely tantalising one.
And as it was on Tuesday with Steve Smith's clever accumulation of twos rather than boundaries, it will be the composed—not simply the most explosive—performers who will thrive.
Can Mumbai Turn It Around?
From feast to famine, the Mumbai Indians are currently enduring an incredibly difficult tournament in the 2014 edition of the IPL.
Hurt by the loss of players such as Glenn Maxwell, Sachin Tendulkar, Dinesh Karthik and Dwayne Smith for this year's competition, Mumbai's batting line-up is both out of sorts and well under strength in comparison with the team's rivals.
Michael Hussey has struggled at the top of the order, while the curious placement of Rohit Sharma in the middle order seems to be hurting the team's balance. The expensive Corey Anderson has also failed to get going.
That has left Mumbai as the second lowest-scoring team in the tournament thus far—a fact the team's elite bowling brigade of Lasith Malinga, Zaheer Khan, Pragyan Ojha and Harbhajan Singh has been unable to overcome.
Thus, watching Mumbai attempting to scrape themselves off the bottom of the points table and away from embarrassment will be enthralling viewing over the coming weeks.
Gautam Gambhir's Disastrous Form
Despite being the owner of a superb T20 record, Kolkata Knight Riders captain Gautam Gambhir is enduring a horrific run of form in this season's IPL.
Across his opening four matches, the Indian left-hander accumulated a grand tally of one run after being dismissed without scoring on three occasions and registering just a single against Punjab.
The 32-year-old did manage to quieten his critics somewhat with an important 45 against Rajasthan on Tuesday, but another single-figure score will place immense pressure on Gambhir.
Although his team is still in the mix for semi-final places, the captain's abysmal form will be a lingering headache for team management, who will be caught between wanting to maintain the stability of leadership and selecting a team on form.
Whether or not Gambhir retains his place for the remainder of the campaign may well be dependent on how confident the franchise feels in handing the captaincy to Jacques Kallis or Shakib Al Hasan.
The Fightback of Seam Bowling in Twenty20 Cricket
The value of seam bowling to T20 cricket appeared to hit an all-time low during the recent World T20 in Bangladesh.
Such was the dominance of spin across the duration of the tournament that four of the top five wicket-takers were of the slower variety, while the likes of Sunil Narine and Rangana Herath (not in the top five for wickets) also grabbed headlines for their impressive performances.
In dewy conditions, pace on the ball became an incredibly dangerous commodity; batsmen preyed on the faster men but were content to see out the spinners.
In this ongoing edition of the IPL, the story has been different: Seven of the top 10 wicket-takers thus far are seamers, with Mitchell Starc, Lasith Malinga and Mohit Sharma among the prominent speedsters to enjoy success in this season's tournament.
That, of course, may change as the competition shifts to India, but the notable—albeit short—resurgence of seam bowling in this IPL is a positive for the T20 game.
Kevin Pietersen Possibly Shining on His Natural Stage
Kevin Pietersen missed his side's opening three matches in this tournament, but it would feel like a very Pietersen-esque thing to do to shine on a prominent stage in the immediate aftermath of a controversy.
Having been axed from the England setup, the mercurial right-hander is now at the helm of a major franchise in a glamour-oriented competition—something that should sit comfortably with Pietersen.
Certainly, his Delhi Daredevils outfit needs a boost from its captain after claiming just two wins from the opening five matches, and Pietersen too needs to recapture the form that has made him one of the world's most feared T20 performers.
Yet, after cruising to an unbeaten 26 to steer his side to victory last time out, it feels as though the former England superstar is ready to produce a big serving of "I told you so."
Dominance of Indian Stars in Familiar Surrounds
Although the conditions in the UAE aren't all that dissimilar to those found on the subcontinent, it's highly likely that the competition's Indian stars will benefit from returning to the venues they're so familiar with on home soil.
Much like the way English players understand the innate differences between Old Trafford and Trent Bridge, or the way the Australians recognise the contrast between Perth and Adelaide, the IPL's Indian players will be the fastest to adapt to the varying conditions from venue to venue.
Consequently, the cornerstones of the India T20 side in Virat Kohli, MS Dhoni, Yuvraj Singh, Suresh Raina, Ravichandran Ashwin and Ravindra Jadeja should be among those to shine as the tournament returns to its natural home.
Shikhar Dhawan's Batting Form Under the Pressure of Captaincy
Across the duration of 2013, Shikhar Dhawan became one of the world's pre-eminent limited-overs batsmen, shining in both T20s at domestic level and on the one-day international stage for India.
However, this year, the talented left-hander has hit a slump, which has continued to drag into this year's IPL.
From five innings so far, Dhawan has compiled just 85 runs at the top of Hyderabad's line-up, looking vastly out of sorts and burdened by the weight of leading his side.
One can understand the appeal for the franchise to appoint an Indian player as captain, but with a proven T20 International leader in the team in Darren Sammy, Dhawan looks to be a misguided selection.
For the Sunrisers to make some noise in this tournament, the team will need its captain to emerge from his current malaise and find a way to overcome the burden of captaincy with his batting.
Late Potential Surge from Rajasthan Royals
As Steve Smith cleverly pushed a precise two to claim victory in Tuesday's tense encounter with Kolkata, it felt as though Rajasthan had seized upon a key moment in the side's 2014 campaign.
Heading back to India with a 2-3 record would have been a disappointing return for a team possessing the T20 nous of the Royals, but through Smith, Shane Watson and Co., the men in blue have built a platform for a strong finish to the tournament and currently sit at 3-2.
Much like the Rajasthan side that triumphed in the inaugural IPL season, the 2014 Royals outfit feels greater than the sum of its parts; the team's lack of superstars compensated instead by an admirable togetherness.
That unity shouldn't be underestimated, particularly when one examines the struggles of the Mumbai Indians and Sunrisers Hyderabad this season.
Therefore, it wouldn't come as a surprise for Rajasthan to make a strong run into the semi-finals, where they have a great chance to upset some of the more fancied sides.
Shane Watson's Captaincy
Building upon the previous slide, the captaincy prowess—or lack thereof some may argue—of Shane Watson will be interesting viewing over the coming days and weeks of the IPL.
So far this season, the Australian has been a little bit of a mixed bag with his tactics in the field. Against the powerful Chennai team led by MS Dhoni, Watson led his team superbly in the field as the Royals restricted the talented Super Kings to just 140 (a target the side disappointingly failed to chase).
Yet the captain made some questionable calls during the final overs against Kolkata on Tuesday, most notably when he opted to bowl himself ahead of James Faulkner in the decisive 17th over that allowed the chasing side back into the match.
Watson has, of course, held the role of vice-captain within the Australian setup but has been relieved of that position in recent times, which will place a greater pressure on his limited leadership experience in the field.
Change in Fortunes for Bangalore's Struggling Superstar Batsmen
When you take a glimpse at the team sheet for Royal Challengers Bangalore, it's impossible to work out how Virat Kohli's side are yet to pass 148 in five matches in this tournament.
Boasting names such as AB de Villiers, Chris Gayle, Yuvraj Singh and Kohli himself, logic would suggest that Bangalore would be the team to fear in this year's competition.
Yet after cruising to consecutive wins over Delhi and Mumbai—games in which Bangalore's batting line-up wasn't fully tested—the team's explosive core has failed to fire in three straight losses at the hands of Kolkata, Rajasthan and Punjab.
The most alarming of those performances came against the Royals, when Kohli's outfit collapsed to be all-out for just 70 in the space of 15 overs.
Yet with such incredible talent residing in one dressing room, it's unlikely we'll see that superstar quartet quelled for too long. Thus, expect Bangalore to light up the competition at some stage over the coming weeks.
High-Price Players Under Pressure
There have been a number of players who have struggled in the competition so far after fetching large sums in the recent IPL player auction.
IPL debutant Corey Anderson is a prominent case, having struggled mightily for the winless Mumbai Indians with just 73 runs in five innings to date.
Hyderabad's David Warner is another who is yet to justify his lofty price tag; the Australian's tournament strike rate of 112.41 is well below the mark expected of a major signing.
Delhi will also be somewhat underwhelmed with the performances handed in by Dinesh Karthik to this point in the campaign.
As the tournament shifts to India, the fortunes of the event's top-dollar stars will be among the major stories to watch.
Glenn Maxwell's Ongoing Ascension to Superstar Status
Just 12 months ago, Glenn Maxwell was the punchline of cricketing jokes after becoming the surprising and rarely used million-dollar boy of the Mumbai Indians for the 2013 IPL season.
Suddenly, the Australian sensation is the hottest property in limited-overs cricket.
After blitzing the World T20 in Bangladesh, the 25-year-old has continued his assault on the world's bowlers in this year's IPL, crashing his way to a staggering 300 runs in five innings at a strike rate of 201.34.
Perhaps what's most incredible is that Maxwell's recent rate of scoring (his strike rate for the World T20 was 210.00) now appears to be the Australian's new norm rather than a distant goal.
Should the right-hander continue his blazing form, Kings XI Punjab will be nigh-on unbeatable for the remainder of this year's campaign, which would leave Maxwell as the pre-eminent limited-overs batsman on the planet.
Can Anyone Stop This Year's IPL from Being a Two-Horse Race?
It's far too early to begin ruling out other sides from this year's competition, but the opening phase of the tournament has produced two clear standouts.
The table-topping Kings XI Punjab have swept through the Arabian leg undefeated on the back of Glenn Maxwell's explosions and support from the likes of David Miller, Sandeep Sharma and Mitchell Johnson.
MS Dhoni's Chennai outfit, meanwhile, has dropped just the two points across the opening leg of the competition, with Brendon McCullum, Dwayne Smith and the team's strong Indian core possessing too much T20 know-how for their inferior rivals.
Of course, the T20 arena is infinitely volatile and susceptible to rapid change. The finals structure of the the IPL also ensures dominant teams must be wary of lesser opposition.
Yet, on current evidence, both Chennai and Punjab will be incredibly difficult to beat unless the chasing pack of Rajasthan, Kolkata and Bangalore can suddenly capture improved form.