It’s difficult sometimes with so many opinions flying around

“It’s difficult sometimes with so many opinions flying around” – Steven Smith when asked about using the expertise of people like MS Dhoni while leading Rising Pune Supergiant. © AFP

The 2017 Indian Premier League is just a couple of days away, and we now know that many of the biggest Indian stars will be missing in action for varying lengths of time. That’s a damper all right. Yet, I find that in a tournament where the slam-bang action of one match segues into the next and very little actually stays in the memory beyond five minutes, there are still a few things to look forward to this year.

Captaincy contretemps in Team Pune
Steven Smith is one of the best batsmen in the world at the moment. There’s absolutely no doubt about that – if there were any, his 499 runs in the four Tests in India should have done enough to dispel them. That aside, if the hype in Australia is to be trusted, he is also well on his way to becoming one of the country’s greatest leaders.

Rising Pune Supergiant have clearly bought into the Australian point of view – if not MS Dhoni, then who? Not Ajinkya Rahane, not Faf du Plessis, but Smith. Fair enough.

An Indian newspaper called the upcoming edition of the Indian Premier League ‘Friends Season 10’ – as apt a description as you’ll find. So all the bad blood during the India v Australia Test series, much of it involving Smith, would be forgotten, right? There shouldn’t be any issues about him leading Dhoni and Rahane, and the others, in Pune.

But …

“If I want something or someone really sees something then they can come up to me, but if there are opinions coming left, right and centre then it can cloud your judgment and what’s going on in your mind. So just try and stay as clear as possible. […] It’s difficult sometimes with so many opinions flying around.”

That’s what Smith said the other day during a Pune press interaction, with Rahane and Ben Stokes seated alongside him.

As we saw when MS Dhoni played under Virat Kohli in the series against England earlier this year, it’s not going to be easy for him to stop being the captain even if he isn’t one. © BCCI

Stephen Fleming, who first played with and then stood behind Dhoni as coach in Chennai, and then in Pune last season, might not have known about opinions coming left, right and centre, but stressed “… without concentrating just on Steve as captain, which I am excited about working with, we have got leadership [Dhoni, du Plessis, Rahane] and it is very important for a young side like us.”

The beginnings of a conflict there? Who knows.

Dhoni and Fleming, as well as du Plessis, have worked together for a fair stretch of time in the IPL. You’d expect them, as professionals, to fit into the new scheme of things and extend their support to Smith. But it will be fun to keep an eye out when the boys are on the field – body language and all that.

On a couple of occasions during the limited-overs series against England earlier this year, with Virat Kohli leading India, Dhoni seemed to forget who was in charge. The two consulted at times, Dhoni helped tweak the field a few times too, and once, memorably, the older man asked for a review before Kohli could. It had to officially come from Kohli, and it did. And it was a good one.

You can’t take the captain out of Dhoni, can you?

And I dunno about “left, right, and centre” but there might be quite a bit there from behind the stumps.

Four men with a lot to gain, and lose

© Getty Images

Shikhar Dhawan, Suresh Raina, Dinesh Karthik and Robin Uthappa – Under-19 mates from 2004, they have a lot to gain and a lot to lose at the 2017 Indian Premier League. © Getty Images

Suresh Raina, Shikhar Dhawan, Robin Uthappa and Dinesh Karthik go back a long way.

All of them were a part of the Indian Under-19 World Cup team in 2004. Karthik was the first to make his international debut, the same year, then Raina, followed by Uthappa in 2006, and much, much later, in 2010, Dhawan got there. The four of them were the top-scorers for India in the World Cup – Dhawan the topper – and all these years later, 13 to be exact, all of them are back in the same boat, the one that is just off the shore (the Indian team) but isn’t quite close enough for them to jump on to terra firma.

Dhawan, Raina, Uthappa and Karthik are all in their early 30s now, and only a fool will say that they have no place in the Indian teams of the next few years – interestingly, captained by the man who played the Under-19 World Cup four years after them.

All of them, especially Raina and Uthappa, have been among the biggest IPL stars over the years, and Dhawan is only slightly behind them. As for Karthik, while he has often played back-up roles in the IPL, he is in a great position to resuscitate his international dream following excellent scores in the 50-over Vijay Hazare Trophy and Deodhar Trophy and a pretty good Ranji Trophy 2016-17. One thinks of him as a wicketkeeper-batsman, but he could be a cinch to make the Champions Trophy team as a specialist batsman if he carries his List A form into the IPL. The other three would be backing themselves for a hurrah in England and Wales too.

These are men with a lot to prove, a lot to gain and lose, at the IPL, and keeping a close watch on how they go might make a lot of sense.

Rashid, Nabi, and the Afghan cause

© AFP

One can’t help but rejoice at every little achievement of the Afghan cricketers, and Sunrisers Hyderabad buying Mohammad Nabi and Rashid Khan was one such occasion. © AFP

We were doing a spot of TV work on February 20, and between sandwiches and coffee, the auction action was playing out on a truly giant screen in the studio area. All of us ‘analysts’ had our theories and suggestions, and when a team agreed with what we felt, there were the I told yous and I knew its. I think all of us had agreed that Mohammad Nabi would find a team, and he did, to collective sighs of relief. But the time Rashid Khan went from nowhere to close to the stars, there was disbelief all around that, I’m sure, was shared by whoever was watching the goings-on. When he finally went to Sunrisers Hyderabad, Nabi’s home too, it was to a massive whoop in that studio.

Was he paid too much? Possibly. But surely no one was complaining.

Afghanistan’s story has been such – you can’t help rejoice at every achievement small or big, and a little sad at every setback.

The Nabi & Rashid Show at the IPL auction was one for rejoicing. If they get the chance to strut their stuff at the IPL now, all the better. I’ll probably be rooting for Hyderabad this time, only because of the two Afghan heroes in their midst.