By Veturi Srivatsa
Seldom have the franchises, players and fans waited with so much excitement as they have for the 2019 Indian Premier League (IPL) to kick off.
In the inaugural game of the 12th edition in Chennai on Saturday, former India captain Mahendra Singh Dhoni's Chennai Super Kings play his successor Virat Kohli-led Royal Challengers Bangalore.
Both are key members of India's World Cup squad and know exactly the amount of workload they can take or the number of matches they could play in the summer heat to preserve their body juices for the mega event, starting on May 30.
The team management must definitely have had a word with players at the end of the home series against Australia they lost 2-3 as to how they should stay fit without throwing themselves at everything in the field or going flat out with the white ball even though they bowl the four overs in three spells.
These days Kohli makes authoritative statements. He first said the performances in the IPL will have no bearing on the selection of the World Cup squad since the selection exercise has been on for a year and selectors and team management have more or less finalised the squad. Now he says there cannot be a cap on the number of matches the London-bound players should play.
Kohli, however, expects his teammates to play smart cricket since they know how many matches each can play depending on one's own physical and mental stamina.
Elaborating, Kohli said "If I'm able to play 10, 12 or 15 games, it doesn't necessarily mean the other guy can play that many."
Yet, he wants players to "strive towards excellence and improve every day. Each player will take this tournament as an opportunity to go to the World Cup in a good frame of mind."
The players who suddenly got off the selectors' radar in the last month or so and those who still believe that a good performance in the Twenty20 tournament can catapult them into the scheme of things are bound to go all out to impress their captain and coach.
Some coaches have already started plugging for players from their franchises. Strangely, the noises are coming from former overseas players who are now coaches of IPL teams.
While Kohli's talk is about the 11 he is going to field in the World Cup, others are happy to find their wards in the 15. The selectors are silent, except for making the odd statement like the door being not shut on any player. They are still to make up their mind on going with a fifth pacer, preferably a left-armer, or a third spinner. For a fifth pacer to get in, a batsman or an all-rounder has to be sacrificed and they would not like to disturb the balance of the side by taking three spinners. It's going to be a tough call.
Not only the Indian players, some overseas players are also looking for a good IPL ahead of the World Cup. Two Australians, former captain Steve Smith and his deputy David Warner, are racing against clock to be both fit and regain form.
Smith has rejoined Rajasthan Royals and Warner is back with Sunrisers Hyderabad, though both won't be captaining the sides. Ideally, they would have liked to be playing in the Gulf against Pakistan, the series starting on the day the IPL gets underway, but their suspension following ball tampering in South Africa last March will end only by the month-end.
The two had a stopover in Dubai on their way to India to meet members of the Australian team. They made identical statements saying they felt like they never left their teammates. "The boys were very accepting of us, coming in with open arms and a lot of big hugs and cuddles," says it all. Coach Justin Langer likened the reunion to two brothers returning home.
Most overseas players will be returning home after the first phase of the IPL to join preparatory camps whereas the Indians will get two weeks before leaving for the World Cup.
They all see the IPL as an important event for playing competitive cricket, and for Smith and Warner it is that much more important to get a good hit out in the middle.
Is Twenty20 cricket good enough to prepare for a tough 50-over tournament like the World Cup? We will know soon.
(Veturi Srivatsa is a senior journalist and the views expressed are personal. He can be reached at email@example.com)