Far from the packed stands of the Sawai Man Singh Stadium in Jaipur that cheer for him every summer, this year's Indian Premier League will be held in a foreign land, but Rajasthan Royals skipper Steve Smith is relieved cricket has resumed after the prolonged break forced by the pandemic.
Like fellow international cricketers, Smith too has waited for months as the world grapples with the Covid-19 crisis. His last game was on March 13 when Australia faced New Zealand in an ODI at Sydney. The former Australia skipper will return to action in a limited-overs series in England, but his thoughts are already on IPL, which will be played in the United Arab Emirates from September 19 to November 8.
"It will be great to play some cricket. Like most of the world we are also in sort of shutdown. We also had to find a way through this Covid experience, which has been incredibly difficult for everyone," Smith said in a media interaction on Thursday after a special screening of "Inside Story: A season with Rajasthan Royals", a documentary on the team's tough 2019 season when they ended seventh.
The last edition was unfinished business for Smith. He took over as captain from Ajinkya Rahane mid-season and had to leave for the World Cup with a few matches remaining. The wait for a reunion with fellow Royals has been long this time. In the limited-overs tour of England, Smith will face RR teammates Ben Stokes, Jofra Archer and Jos Buttler, who all featured in the Test series win over West Indies at home.
"It will be great to play some compelling cricket against a quality England outfit. A few of my Royals teammates are there. Hopefully they don't score too many runs or take wickets in that series and save that for IPL," he said.
Although IPL was played in South Africa in 2009, and the first half of 2014 in the UAE—due to elections in India—being confined to a bio-bubble this time can take a toll mentally on the players. Preparation for the 51-day league after months of non-action will also be a challenge.
"It will be difficult for anyone being away from their loved ones for an extended period. You kind of get used to it playing international cricket. You do spend a long time apart. You find a way to make it work," Smith said.
"A lot of people haven't played any cricket, or have little games under their belt. So, it's sort of an even contest. Everybody is going in with the same sort of preparation. It has been incredibly difficult this time. Guys are trying to get their cricket fixtures any way they can.
"Part of being a professional cricketer is being able to adapt to any condition. That's going to be a pretty key message. Conditions in Dubai can be similar to India, it can be different. It's about adapting on the run. A couple of players have experience playing there. Guys are going to be jumping out of their skin to play cricket. Disappointing it is not in India, but the important (thing) is to perform."
Stokes was England's World Cup hero last year and his batting helped clinch a key Ashes Test in the drawn series that followed. Smith, who was Australia's stand out player in that series, is betting big on Stokes this IPL.
"We have seen Stokes go from strength to strength in the last couple of years. He had an incredible World Cup last year. We saw in the Tests (vs Windies); he is bowling beautifully and taking wickets. Hopefully, he doesn't keep that up when we go over there. He can keep that up in IPL," he said.
"He is playing incredible cricket. He wants to be involved all the time, be it bat, bowl or on the field. He gets himself in the hot spots and wants the ball to come to him. Those are the players whom you want in your team. They are the ones who step up when pressure mounts and want to deliver. Glad we have him in our line-up. Hopefully, it's a big season for the boys."
The 'boys' also referred to domestic talent like Riyan Parag and Shreyas Gopal. The 18-year-old Parag, who impressed with his all-round abilities in 2019, was in awe of Stokes, who was a mentor to him. "When after a late night match we would wake up at 12 in the noon and go to the common room, we would see Stokes back from a gruelling gym session. He deserves all the hype," Parag said.
The documentary dissects the turbulent season and one gets an inside peek into Royals' preparation. A major challenge usually is not being able to get "48 to 72 hours" for recovery after a match due to the tight schedule. Travel though may not be an issue in the UAE where three venues—Sharjah, Dubai and Abu Dhabi—will be used.
Rajasthan, champions in the inaugural season, entered the play-offs in 2018 under Rahane as Smith served a ball-tampering ban. Last season, Rahane was removed as skipper after RR won only two out of eight games to lie seventh, where they finished.
"Clarity in communication is important. The reasoning by the management is important. The decision was taken firstly to unlock Jinks' batting potential. We know how incredible a batsman he is. It took the pressure off him and one saw that in his performance. Steve is a captain with the highest win percentage and who loves that responsibility," COO Jake Lush McCrum said.
Royals are no strangers to highs and lows. The surprise winners in 2008 were suspended for two years after its co-owner was found guilty of illegal betting in the 2013 season and three players were banned.
Last year, RR defeated eventual champions Mumbai Indians home and away, but it was otherwise downhill. Kings XI Punjab skipper R Ashwin 'Mankading' Buttler led to a controversy while Stokes and Jaydev Unadkat didn't click.
In the documentary, produced by Red Bull Media House, one gets a peek into boardroom talk, pool sessions, team meetings, player diet and mental training sessions with surfer Mark Mathews. The overriding theme though is to do way better this season.