PL Deshpande, the brilliant Marathi writer, had noted that cricket is more a subject of conversation than a sport played on the field. He was so right. Just hear the IPL chatter going around. The “neutrals” are assessing every team, analysing their strengths and weaknesses specific to conditions in the UAE. The loyalists are pushing their case, how their team can win no matter what the conditions.
That the whole of IPL, a total of 60 matches, will be played in the UAE makes this — the conditions — the moot point. We may all get a bit of a surprise if the pitches turn out to be different from what we are expecting; historically, the three venues—Sharjah, Dubai and Abu Dhabi—are known for sluggish pitches with low bounce. These are your “average score of 155” kind of pitches. In India, in the last two IPLs, the average 1st innings score was about 170. Never has 200 been successfully chased in a T20I in the UAE. So it’s likely that this IPL may be played in third gear. Which means, teams are suddenly looking at themselves and thinking, do we have the arsenal for this kind of challenge? The franchisees picked the squads in December 2019, assuming that matches were going to be played in India.
For example, KKR packed their team with quicks, letting go of one of their seasoned spinners, Piyush Chawla, as Eden Gardens has become a seam-friendly venue now. How do they deal with the new situation?
This is unfortunate for some teams, and I wonder, if as a special concession, franchises could have been allowed to add or replace two players to suit the change of venue. Assuming that pitches are going to be slow and of low bounce, it’s going to be tough hitting through the line, the staple shot of many batsmen. Also, apart from the mystery spinners, finger spinners too may play a bigger role.
When you look at the teams through this lens, CSK start with an advantage with their selection; Chepauk, CSK’s home, has been a turner for a while now, so they picked players who would thrive there. Chawla is such a welcome addition to their team. This is a spin attack that looks perfectly suited for the UAE; they may be able to get more out of Ravindra Jadeja as a bowler too.
Such conditions are also in Dhoni’s comfort zone. On slow turning pitches, no one captains better than MS. That he also has an experienced batch of Indian batsmen proficient on such pitches, make them strong contenders. The only worry for CSK—and for saying this I will have to bear the wrath of their passionate fans—is the career stage of their key players. Most are in the twilight of their careers. Dhoni has amazingly managed to still extract winning results from them—owning their identity as “Dads’ Army”—but one more year of the same may be stretching it.
MI best on top gear
Playing in third gear is CSK’s way. But that’s why, of late, MI have troubled them the most. Because no one does top gear like MI, with Rohit Sharma, Hardik Pandya and Kieron Pollard in their midst. They look a bit thin when it comes to spin, but Krunal Pandya and Rahul Chahar, a fine wrist spinner, aren’t bad additions. Don’t forget this is the team that has Jasprit Bumrah!
KXIP’s strong batting
Kings XI have a wonderful batting line-up for the conditions, led by the in-form KL Rahul who is as explosive against spin as he is against pace. This is a team with a good bunch of Indian players—Mayank Agarwal, Karun Nair and Sarfaraz Khan to name a few. They also have Glenn Maxwell, who, when he explodes, can devastate any opposition. As for their bowling, it’s not formidable. They will depend a lot on Afghanistan’s Mujeeb-ur Rehman.
Capitals look solid
When you look at DC and visualise them playing in the UAE, their batting packed with young, talented, successful, and self-confident Indian batsmen like Shreyas Iyer, Prithvi Shaw and Rishabh Pant with Shikhar Dhawan leading from the front, you look at them as a force to contend with. They’ve got a strong bowling line up as well, with Amit Mishra, R Ashwin, Axar Patel, and Sandeep Lamichhane forming a strong spin quartet. Throw Kagiso Rabada in the mix and watch them make their way to the play-offs.
Pace heavy KKR
KKR, as mentioned earlier, are hamstrung with a squad picked mostly for seam conditions, so their battery of fast bowlers will be a huge gamble in the UAE. Andre Russell will have to be fit enough to bowl four overs to prop up their bowling. Sunil Narine will again have to be their spearhead. As for Kuldeep Yadav in the UAE? Well, I am not sure how he will do there; as a classical slow wrist spinner he relies a lot on bounce, doesn’t he? On the batting front, there’s the ever-dependable Dinesh Karthik, but Shubman Gill and Eoin Morgan will have to have sensational seasons for KKR to be front runners. I know they have Russell, but this IPL may not be one where the big hitters make as much impact. Gayle by the way, has T20 centuries everywhere in the world barring the UAE.
Royals have Smith too
RR is such a nice team, so likeable. I know they want to be more than just that, but when you assess them, you don’t get the impression you are looking at a champion team. Shreyas Gopal and Mayank Markande as frontline spinners do not exude confidence, while the jury is out on Stokes as a batsman in IPLs. But they do have perhaps the best T20 batsman in the world on current form: Mr Jos Buttler. Then they have Steve Smith, who is improving as a T20 batsman.
Love SRH! A team you would term as street smart, and this reflects in their selection, what with Siddharth Kaul and Sandeep Sharma two hardened, gritty pacers used to bowling on pitches like the ones in the UAE. In batting they have the most consistent batsmen ever in the IPL, David Warner. He is versatile too. Barring the last T20 fifty vs Australia, Jonny Bairstow looks low on confidence. It will not be easy for him to find form, but in Kane Williamson they have a class batsman along with the more self-confident Manish Pandey, two batsmen ideal for 150 par score games. Add Rashid Khan, Shahbaz Nadeem and Mohd Nabi and you are looking at serious play-off contenders.
That leaves us with RCB. They simply do not have a great mix of players. Much of the impetus of winning the title is found at the auction tables. RCB, obviously, have the X factor with Virat Kohli, AB de Villiers and Yuzvendra Chahal, but then they have had them for the last few years now. Let’s hope with Aaron Finch by Virat’s side, they can conjure up some magic, like they did towards the end of the last IPL. And yes, looking at Finch’s form at the top for Australia, he must open for RCB.
Finally, this IPL is likely to be very “Indian” in nature. Indian players may have a greater impact on it than they have ever had before. As for me, how bold or foolish of me to be making predictions about a T20 tournament! But then, I also think we have been given a neck so that we can stick it out sometimes.