New Delhi, April 3 (IANS) It is that time of the year when cricket meets Bollywood as the Indian Premier League (IPL) razzmatazz is all set to start Wednesday - albeit without the "feel good" factor of Indian cricket.
A lot has changed in the last 12 months since India lifted the 2011 World Cup, April 2, at the Wankhede Stadium in Mumbai.
Since then the World Champions have struggled to keep pace with the top teams in the world. Disastrous tours of England and Australia and an early exit from the Asia Cup have robbed Indian cricket of much of its glamour.
The IPL, cricket's most lucrative Twenty20 tournament, now offers the ideal break from the rigours of international cricket that had taken its toll on the Indians.
This time the cash-rich Twenty20 league also wears a new look. Only nine teams feature this season, after the scrapping of Kochi Tuskers last year on charges of default payments.
Nine teams will be playing a total of 76 matches - 16 each on home and away basis - to decide the top four, who will proceed to the four-match play-off stage.
This season could be make or break for IPL, which has had its share of controversies in the last 12 months. In 2011, the television ratings fell, Kochi Tuskers were expelled after its owners failed to pay the bank guarantee and then Sahara, the owners of Pune Warriors and chief sponsor of the Indian cricket team, threatened to severe its ties with the Indian cricket board in February.
IPL's newly appointed chairman Rajeev Shukla, who took over last year, attributed the dip in last year's TV ratings to "cricket fatigue".
"IPL is a different tournament. Twenty20 is fun for fans, and India's performance will not have an impact on the tournament. Last year's fall in TV ratings were due to the bad timing, as the IPL was held immediately after India won the Cricket World Cup in the 50-over format. There was cricket fatigue," Shukla said last week.
Shukla, who is also a union minister, said this year, however, IPL would be different.
"This year is different. Besides, the IPL audience is growing in numbers every year. In 2008, we had 102.4 million TV viewers in the IPL and last year it went up to 160.2 million. We have a grand opening ceremony plus a whole range of entertainment activities lined up for IPL-V. It's going to wow the fans," he said.
Curators have been asked to prepare tracks for high-scoring matches.
"We have told the curators that every match should at least have a 160-run total so that the spectators can enjoy the most," Shukla added.
The title sponsorship deal with realty major DLF is up for renewal after this edition and IPL has decided to splurge to keep all its sponsors happy.
The opening ceremony in Chennai Tuesday is a gala affair, featuring American pop star Katy Perry, Indian actor Amitabh Bachchan and a bevy of Bollywood stars. Bachchan will take the oaths of the nine captains.
As the tournament starts Wednesday, the spotlight will be on Sachin Tendulkar, who last month got his 100th international century, West Indies' Chris Gayle and South African sensation Richard Levi.
Tendulkar has also stepped down from the captaincy of Mumbai Indians, which will now be led by Harbhajan Singh. The feisty off-spinner also led Mumbai Indians to their title triumph in the Champions League Twenty20 last year.
Fans, however, will be missing star all-rounder Yuvraj Singh, who is currently undergoing treatment for lung tumour. In the absence of Yuvraj, former India captain Sourav Ganguly will be leading the Pune Warriors. Australian captain Michael Clarke has joined the team as a cover for Yuvraj, who was man of the tournament in the World Cup.
A relaxed Tendulkar, without the burdens of captaincy, may be key for Mumbai Indians, who are one of the top contenders for the title.
Mumbai Indians, however, will be facing the main challenge from the Mahendra Singh Dhoni-led Chennai Super Kings, who will be chasing a hat trick of IPL titles. They also face each other in the opening match in Chennai Wednesday.
But the Super Kings have also realised that defending the title for the second successive time will indeed be difficult.
"Defending the title is not an easy job and it will be an interesting season for us. That is what we have to watch out for. More so there will be back-to-back matches in early April which we have to be wary of," said Super Kings lead spinner Ravichandran Ashwin.
For Super Kings the top draw will be India all-rounder Ravindra Jadeja, who was sold for a whopping $2 million during the players' auction for the fifth season.
Flamboyant West Indies batsman Gayle will be another star to watch out for. Gayle emerged as the top scorer for Bangalore Royal Challengers last year despite missing the first few weeks of action.
"The expectation is high based on what happened last year. But last year is history and we don't know what the future holds. I'm not a person to predict and say, yes, I'm going to better 600 odd runs. We'll have to wait and see. The start is going to be crucial," he said.
(Abhishek Roy can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)
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