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Kohli and Pant take center stage as IPL mega-show returns, with World Cup on the horizon

NEW DELHI: Virat Kohli and Rishabh Pant face scrutiny as the Indian Premier League kicks off on Friday, ahead of the T20 World Cup. The 17th edition of the world’s wealthiest cricket league is set to conclude near the June 1 start of the World Cup in the West Indies and the United States.

Organizers have released only the first two weeks of the IPL schedule due to clashes with India’s six-week-long general election. Last season’s 10-team IPL spanned eight weeks. “This is a global cricket stage,” IPL chairman Arun Dhumal told AFP on Wednesday, highlighting the league’s unmatched quality.

“Both Indian and overseas players will be aiming to excel in the lead-up to the World Cup,” Dhumal said. Master batsman Kohli, who missed India’s 4-1 Test series victory over England due to the birth of his second child, returns with Royal Challengers Bengaluru (previously Bangalore).

They face defending champions Chennai Super Kings, led by M.S. Dhoni, in the opening match in Chennai on Friday. “Kohli is crucial for India in the T20 World Cup,” former chief selector M.S.K. Prasad told the IPL’s official broadcaster. “He has been in form for a long time. He will score runs in this IPL as well.” Kohli has yet to win the IPL title, but Bengaluru broke their drought when their women’s team claimed victory in the WPL under Smriti Mandhana on Sunday.

Pant returns as captain of the Delhi Capitals, making his cricket comeback since a serious car crash in 2022. They take on the Punjab Kings on Saturday. Pant has undergone extensive rehabilitation since the crash, which left him with a damaged knee ligament, wrist, ankle, and back abrasions. If he proves his form and fitness, Pant could earn a spot in India’s World Cup squad.

Another player with a point to prove is Hardik Pandya, the new captain of five-time IPL winners Mumbai Indians. Pandya has been sidelined since October due to an ankle injury and replaces Rohit Sharma as skipper. Rohit, who led Mumbai to their five titles, continues with the team.

Could this be Dhoni’s farewell?

The decision to replace Rohit, who leads India across all formats, has faced criticism, but Pandya isn’t worried about any tensions. “I don’t think it will be awkward,” Pandya, who guided Gujarat Titans to the 2022 IPL title in their debut season, told reporters. “I’ve played my whole career under him and I know he’s going to support me always.”

This season could potentially mark the swansong for Chennai’s veteran Dhoni, after leading the team to their fifth title in 2023. He previously stated that another year was a “gift” to his fans. The 42-year-old wicketkeeper-batsman, who captained India to two World Cup victories, remains a cricket icon in India.

Dhoni underwent knee surgery last year and has been training hard in Chennai. “He’s preparing really well,” CSK batting coach Mike Hussey said. “His knee seems good at this stage, and he’s batting extremely well.” Australia’s Pat Cummins will be one of two overseas captains in this year’s IPL, having been named skipper of Sunrisers Hyderabad.

The fast bowler briefly held an IPL auction record when Hyderabad paid 205 million rupees ($2.5 million) last year. Fellow Australian quick Mitchell Starc soon surpassed the record when Kolkata Knight Riders paid 247.5 million rupees. Starc, 34, returns to the IPL after nine years, having previously played for Bengaluru.-AFP

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