A UFO lands in the ESPNcricinfo office. It's shiny. The door opens - in that really cool way with a slow bzzzt - and the occupant steps out. Seven feet tall. Oval head. Long, spindly arms. Typical Hollywood alien - except for the bit where they freak out when the IPL ad plays on TV.
Icome Inpeace: What the florg was that?!
Icome: That noise. It's so...
Al: You don't like the IPL horn?!
Icome: What's Eyepeeyell?
There's a loud collective gasp.. ruined of course by a phone ringing
Al blathers on for five hours about the IPL boring everyone else to death but the strange blue extraterrestrial, who by now has a verified Twitter account and knows every cricketer in the world.
Icome: So who's gonna win this year?
Al: Um, not sure. The IPL is the most competitive T20 league in the world. So predicting a winner is like figuring out if there's life in outer sp... oh.. uh.. wrong analogy. But I can tell you what to look forward to.
Icome: Sure. Why not.
Al: Well, you obviously know the World Cup is like 18 days after the IPL.
Al: That means everyone will have kid gloves on. Australia and England have already set a date for their players to return - May 1. Imagine what that will do to a franchise like Rajasthan Royals. One day they'll have Steven Smith, Jos Buttler, Ben Stokes and Jofra Archer in their XI. The next, they all go poofff. And these are all first-choice picks. Heavyweight picks. Without them the team actually looks... well, let's put it this way, they might not even have four overseas players to put on the park. There's only Oshane Thomas, Liam Livingstone and Ashton Turner, and that's assuming Australia don't pick him for the World Cup.
Al's mind voice: I just made an alien go whoa.
(Norm)Al: So, unlike most IPL seasons, where teams can afford slow starts - Mumbai Indians are famous for it - this time they may pay extra attention to winning the early matches so their path to the playoffs is a little easier. 'Cause everyone will announce their World Cup XVs in April and they'll probably want to recall their players from the IPL to begin their own preparations.
Icome: Will anyone leave their players behind?
Al: New Zealand. They said so last November but you wouldn't blame them if they changed their minds. The IPL is a two-month-long tournament with teams playing one night, travelling the next, and playing again almost immediately. Even India are wary about what might happen to their best ODI assets, with the captain Virat Kohli repeatedly saying they'll have to be careful about keeping themselves fresh and also not picking up bad habits.
Icome: Bad habits?
Al: Kinda like playing a big shot too early. Or experimenting too much while bowling. All that stuff.
Al: All that might mean players on the fringes of various national teams, and those who've retired from international cricket altogether, could hold the key later in the season.
Chennai Super Kings' XI, for example, might look something like: 1 Shane Watson, 2 Sam Billings, 3 Suresh Raina, 4 Ambati Rayudu, 5 MS Dhoni (capt & wk), 6 Kedar Jadhav, 7 Dwayne Bravo, 8 Deepak Chahar, 9 Ravindra Jadeja, 10 Harbhajan Singh/Karn Sharma 11 Mohit Sharma
And that's pretty baller. Delhi Capitals too. Check it out: 1 Prithvi Shaw, 2 Shikhar Dhawan, 3 Shreyas Iyer (capt), 4 Rishabh Pant (wk), 5 Colin Ingram, 6 Sherfane Rutherford, 8 Axar Patel/Amit Mishra, 9 Avesh Khan, 10 Sandeep Lamichhane, 11 Keemo Paul/Ishant Sharma/ Harshal Patel
Kings XI Punjab, meanwhile, stand to lose Chris Gayle, David Miller and Mujeeb Ur Rahman - three potential match-winners, leaving them with: 1 Mayank Agarwal, 2 KL Rahul (wk), 3 Nicholas Pooran, 4 Karun Nair, 5 Mandeep Singh, 6 Moises Henriques, 7 R Ashwin (capt), 8 M Ashwin, 9 Ankit Rajpoot, 10 Mohammed Shami, 11 Hardus Viljoen.
Former champions Mumbai Indians and Kolkata Knight Riders have no such worries. Their strongest XI barely changes and even when Quinton de Kock leaves, Rohit Sharma has back-up options as good as Ishan Kishan. So yeah, that might be where this IPL is won. And it's gonna be pretty close again. Like last time (which we predicted).
Icome: What makes you say that?
Al: There isn't one team that is, like, way overpowered. Mumbai look like they have the strongest squad but they had that last season too and didn't make it to the playoffs. KL Rahul and Rishabh Pant were the two top-scorers in 2018 but their teams - Kings XI and Delhi - didn't make the last four.
Icome: Anything else?
Al: Ohh! Oh, there's a big push for young, unknown players! Like Prayas Ray Barman. He's 16. Bowls legspin. Wrote his class 12 exams last week. Now, just like that, he's gonna go to work for Royal Challengers Bangalore… and get paid INR 1.5 crore!
Ditto for Simran Singh. Eighteen. Faced less than 50 balls in T20s. Kings XI bought him for INR 4.8 crore. Rasikh Salam. Fast bowler from J&K that nobody knew about but Mumbai got on him board for INR 20 lakh. All indications of the amount of scouting that goes on in the off-season 'cause every team wants a surprise weapon. Someone to shock the opposition with. Kinda like Jasprit Bumrah all those years ago.
These guys'll be working with the best of the best too. Zaheer Khan and Mahela Jayawardene will be in Mumbai. Ricky Ponting and Sourav Ganguly in Delhi. Mike Hesson - the coach who helped New Zealand make the World Cup final for the first time - at Kings XI.
Icome: Cool, cool, cool.
Al: And one last thing. Well two last things. Steven Smith and David Warner. They kinda florged up a while back, got banned from playing and everything, but now they're back in the spotlight. Like the biggest spotlight. Australia themselves will be keen to see how those two shape up against top-quality bowling and the off-field scrutiny.
Icome: So who do you like?
Al: Umm, the holders. CSK, who returned from a two-year suspension last year to win the whole tournament. It was bizarre. They'd always be like 30 for 5 and then someone'd come and rescue them. They weren't so much playing cricket as trolling haters.
And there's RCB, who've had the two best batsmen of this era for years but no trophy to show for it. They're always a popular team, though. There have been so many games where they'd be in Kolkata or Mumbai or Delhi and the crowd would be screaming Kohli's name or AB de Villiers'.
Icome: Are you drooling?
Al: Wha-- No!
Icome snickers quietly. Then loudly. He keeps snickering and soon it turns into a proper evil Mwahahahaha.
Al: Hey, come on, it wasn't that funny.
Icome shakes his head and points behind Al's shoulder... to all the other UFOs that have surrounded the office You really think I was interested in the florgin' IPL?! I was stalling for time! Now, take me to your leader!