It's finally happening.
After years of postponements, Sri Lanka will have its own franchise T20 league, the Lanka Premier League, which begins today.
That Sri Lanka Cricket (SLC) and its partner for the LPL, Dubai-based Innovation Production Group (IPG), have managed to overcome numerous obstacles to conduct the tournament is credit-worthy. But the real test starts now, in how the tournament is executed and how it sets itself up for the future -- a future, SLC hopes, in which the LPL becomes a staple T20 tournament and an attraction for world class international talent.
With no spectators allowed and physical participation limited and restricted to bio-secure bubbles, the opening ceremony will feature augmented and virtual reality technologies to showcase "the vibrancy of the Sri Lankan culture, heritage, entertainment and most importantly the passion of Cricket in Sri Lanka," as stated in an SLC press release. And of course, speeches – even a pandemic cannot undermine the need for or importance of speeches -- with media reporting that SLC President Shammi Silva and Sports Minister Namal Rajapaksa will speak virtually as part of the opening ceremony.
The tournament's opening match will be between the Colombo Kings, captained by Angelo Mathews and the Kandy Tuskers, led by wicket-keeper batsman Kusal Janith Perera.
What can we expect from the opening match?
It’s been a long time since most of those involved in the LPL have played competitive cricket. Some of the local contingent featured in the three-day Premier Cricket tournament in August, but a second wave of Covid-19 in Sri Lanka meant that SLC had to postponed subsequent domestic tournaments.
Franchise captains acknowledged the lack of preparation when they spoke to the media on Wednesday, although some were more prepared than others. The Jaffna Stallions started training with their local players almost two weeks ago and are probably the best prepared team. Kandy captain Kusal Janith Perera said his team had had a few net sessions together since the teams arrived in Hambantota, while the Colombo franchise in contrast had their first training session as a team only on Wednesday night. They do however have two players who also featured significantly in the recent Indian Premier League, in Andre Russell and Isuru Udana and will be a little more prepared than most.
All in all, expect players to be a little rusty – bowlers struggling to find consistency, batsman failing to middle and time their shots, and fielders being sloppy – but that will most certainly improve as the tournament goes on.
Who to watch out for?
West Indian Andre Russell is the biggest overseas star of the tournament and is part of a Colombo Kings franchise that, on paper, appears to have the strongest squad, even if they are a little short in the pace bowling department. However, with Russell and captain Angelo Mathews also able to contribute overs of medium pace, the Kings have versatility in being able to pick their final XI.
Another overseas player the Kings could turn to is Afghan spinner Qais Ahmad, best described as a Rashid Khan 2.0, who is part of a quartet of international spinners available to the franchise. English batsmen Laurie Evans and Daniel Bell-Drummond will likely make up the backbone of the Kings’ batting, along with former captain Dinesh Chandimal.
The Kandy Tuskers will have to depend more on their local talent, after their Marquee Overseas players Chris Gayle and Liam Plunkett withdrew from the tournament. Their replacements are still not ready to join the team, and in the case of Dale Steyn still not even in the country, which means only Irfan Pathan and Afghanistan’s Rahmanullah Gurbaz and Naveen-ul-Haq will be available for selection for the first game. Kusal Mendis will be a key part of their batting unit, while Tuskers’ management will be desperate for Asela Gunaratne to find the kind of match-winning skills he has previously shown with the national team.
What challenges will the LPL face?
The pandemic has meant that the LPL is being played under strict health guidelines to ensure there are no cases of Covid-19 within the respective bio-secure bubbles established for players and other stakeholders. Maintaining the integrity of those bubbles for the entirety of the tournament will be paramount, and the Army, who are playing a key role in the response to the pandemic in Sri Lanka, have assigned members of their Commando unit to ensure there are no breaches.
There is also the danger of match- and spot-fixing approaches. Media reports suggest that at least one player has been approached, though the exact nature of the alleged fix is not known. It appears that the young player had reported the said approach, the right move and one that all other players need to follow if the tournament is to maintain its transparency and integrity.