The Indian Premier League (IPL) is back and even if the sixth edition of the world's most glamorous and cash-rich Twenty20 league has been overshadowed by multiple protests as well as political and military wrangling, it remains one of the most absorbing spectacles in the sporting world.
If you don't believe us, check out these photographs of a spectacular opening ceremony, featuring Bollywood (the equally glamorous and cash-rich Indian film industry) superstars Shah Rukh Khan, Katrina Kaif and Deepika Padukone, as well as American rapper Pitbull. The opening panoply of sights and sounds is, however, now behind us. It's time to get down to the cricket.
There are nine franchises in this year's competition, including the Chennai Super Kings, who will be led by MS Dhoni, the captain of the Indian national side. The Super Kings or CSK are IPL royalty; they've won the league twice (2010 and 2011) and made the final on four of the last five occasions.
The others in the fray are the defending champions Kolkata Knight Riders (who claimed a maiden crown by shocking CSK on their home turf last season), the Delhi Daredevils, the Kings XI Punjab, the Mumbai Indians, the Pune Warriors, the Rajasthan Royals, the Royal Challengers Bangalore and the Sunrisers Hyderabad.
The basic structure of the tournament is similar to any major football league, sprinkled with the glamour of a knock-out tournament. Each side plays the other twice, once at home and once away. A win is worth two points and those points are shared in the event of tie or cancellation.
The top four teams from the league stage then progress to the knock-out rounds... and this is where it gets a little complicated.
The first semi final in the play-off stages is between the teams finishing first and second in the league. And the winner progresses directly into the final. The loser plays the winner of the second semi-final (the third and fourth-placed teams from the league) for the right to enter the final.
The matches start today (3 April), when KKR face the Daredevils at the Eden Gardens. The league matches conclude on 19 May, when the Sunrisers host KKR. And the play-offs will be held between 21 May and 26 May, with the final set to be played in Kolkata.
Talking Points and Controversies
There are several controversial questions and debates surrounding the sixth IPL season, not the least of which is the decision of the Tamil Nadu state government to ban all Sri Lankan cricketers or officials from playing in or being a part of the IPL in Chennai.
The background for this unilateral diktat is largely political but, essentially, it revolves around protests over the treatment of ethnic Tamils in the island country. And it appears that rather than face the wrath of tens of thousands of furious activists, the local government has chosen a policy of appeasement.
And just so we're clear, the ban affects all Sri Lankan players in the IPL. RCB, for example, cannot field spin legend Mutthiah Muralitharan and ace batsman Tillakaratne Dilshan when they play in the city. This constitutes a huge advantage for Dhoni's Chennai team, even though they will lose the services of Nuwan Kulasekara and Akila Dananjaya for their home games.
There is also the matter of protests in the western state of Maharashtra, the home of both the Mumbai Indians and the Pune Warriors. The leader of the BJP, the main opposition party to the central government, has criticised the hosting of the tournament at a time when farmers in the state are fighting a drought.
Vinod Tawde wrote in a letter to the IPL Chief Commissioner: "The maintenance of each cricket ground during the IPL season needs 60,000 litres of water every day. With the season to run for 36 days, water consumption per ground during this period would be [2.16 million litres] per ground. This is an abominable waste of water in the wake of the acute shortage of the water in the state."
There are other issues as well, such as the falling television audience and enormous debt problems for several franchises. But, once the floodlights come on at the Eden Gardens in Kolkata, all of that will likely be forgotten... and it will be only about the cricket.
And that is how it should be.
On a more positive note, the IPL 2013 will afford die-hard fans the chance to see heroes like Ricky Ponting and Muralitharan in action... something that is otherwise hard to do, given they have retired from international cricket. Ponting, the highest run-scorer for Australia in both Tests and One Day Internationals, will captain the Mumbai Indians.
And therein lies another interesting point to watch... for he will command two of India's most senior cricketers in Sachin Tendulkar and Harbhajan Singh, as well as having to work with retired Indian spin legend Anil Kumble (in a technical role). Why will this be uncomfortable? Because of an incident in a 2007 Test in Sydney, when Australian all-rounder Andrew Symonds was accused of racially abusing Singh: Tendulkar, Singh, Ponting and Kumble were all involved in that acrimonious dispute, which almost spiralled into an international incident.