IPL’s second foreign stint will not exactly be a celebration. The scepticism surrounding the credibility of the venue means the blue-riband event will have to pass a test. The Middle East will pose a challenge to both cricket and IPL’s image.
On the field
Once the players take the field, the images of last year’s IPL will fade away, almost to the extent of becoming irrelevant. Away from home, the home advantage gone, all the teams will practically start on an even footing.
Untested pitches will mean the first few days will go in gauging whether it’s a bat-first or bowl-first pitch. "In the initial matches, it is going to be a gut call, but you immediately gather the characteristics of a pitch as soon you play on it," TA Sekar, director, Delhi Daredevils, told HT.
Echoing a similar view, Paras Mhambrey, assistant coach, Mumbai Indian, said, "This is why we decided to hold our camps here (UAE) to get acclimatised to the pitches and conditions, so that going into the tournament we have a fair idea."
The IPL venue inspection team, which inspected the three grounds, left a brief with the hosting association to prepare pitches that offer entertaining cricket.
"We have been told to produce pitches which allow high-scoring matches. Scores of 160-180 would be par and make for good viewing," said Mazhar Khan, administrator, UAE Cricket Association.
The dry heat could be another issue and it will boil down to adaptability. "Heat is not an issue at this time of the year, besides we have taken care to cover the pitches between 9am to 5pm, so as to keep them from drying out. Enough care has been taken to retain the bounce, which is the key to good carry," said Tony Hemmings, head curator in charge of the Dubai Sports City.
Improvisation is perhaps the most used term in world cricket, more so in T20. In a bid for survival, it’s common to see bowlers bowling yorkers outside off-stump, slow bouncers, split-finger and back-of-the-palm slower deliveries. Up against furious and unconventional bat-work, few have even mastered the slower, loopy yorkers.
"Gone are the days of playing conventional cricket, T20 is increasingly shaping cricketers’ intelligence. If you are not one, it’s hard to succeed, and every year it is getting intense," said Sekar.
"For example, Glenn McGrath found out that Dhoni is not comfortable against yorkers bowled well outside the off-stump, and to survive his onslaught you got to have that skill to contain him," he said.
"Acquiring these bowling skills is not an IPL phenomenon, it may have originated from the format but bowlers are trying them out in first-class cricket, Ranji nets, etc. So, by the time one plays the IPL, one is adept at switching back and forth between those skill sets. I have seen batsmen, who play with a straight bat, trying a switch hit in the nets," said Mhambrey.
"With the constant evolution in technology, it’s becoming hard to escape the analysis of one’s game --- video analysts capturing every bit of a batsman’s chink and the intelligence is fed to the bowlers. Thus, one prepares accordingly depending on who he is bowling to," said Sekar.
Spinners in the UAE
Familiar sub-continental conditions are a giveaway on the role spinners are going to play. A lot of the teams, loaded with seamers, will have to look at their spin options. "Ideally, I would go with three seamers and two spinners in a match expecting one or two of them are more of a batsman who can chip in with two overs here and there. In conditions like these, one would look beyond two spinners. If there are part-timers who can do the job for you, it makes the job easier," said Sekar.
"Unless you have one solid spinner, in our case, Pragyan Ojha, who can get you all four overs, one generally looks at those spinners who can just give one or two overs but not beyond that. With four specialist bowlers, you rely on part-timers to give you that option," said Mhambrey.
Strike rate to average
With maturity, the tournament has moved away from the fixation with strike rates. This year, players’ averages will be important.
"It’s no longer about slam-bang, high strike of 140-plus batsmen anymore. What is the use if the strike-rate is above 140 and the average is 12-15 runs, it doesn’t help your team. Players with an average of 25-30 runs lend you the solidity you need," reasoned Mhambrey.
"You see how Gayle is playing these days. He has conceded his early-on hitting habit, plays the waiting game, sees through the strike bowlers and then picks the part-timers, which compensates for his strike-rate later. There is a shift in the batting approach now," said Sekar.
Blot of match-fixing
Even before the cricketing reasons for hosting the first leg in the UAE take precedence, the pre-2000 era comes to mind. Said to be the den of the betting and fixing syndicate, the anti-corruption security unit (ACSU) of the BCCI will have its hands full. From seeking help from the local government, sharing the database of the ICC watch-list, employing round-the-clock vigil on players, appointing integrity officers with each franchise to engaging a South African security agency for the security of the players, the ACSU’s task is cut out. "Based on last year’s incidents, we have put in place a robust infrastructure to tackle the menace of fixing, taking help of the local government as well as our counterparts in Dubai. We are hopeful of keeping this year’s IPL corruption-free," said Ravi Sawani, head, ACSU.
A 2.2 million strong Indian population and a decade-and-half long deprivation of watching India cricketers in action, there will be few unoccupied seats in the stadiums. Though playing at neutral venues, the franchises are hopeful of a full house.
"The problem with the stadiums is that they have limited seating. But there are a lot of Delhi Daredevils supporters who are based here, who will come to watch us play, and since it’s a short two-hour flight from India, a lot of followers of different franchises will come to watch their teams," said Sekar.
"We are prepared in terms of infrastructure and facilities to handle a high-profile event like the IPL. There is quite a buzz and the demand for tickets is high. Unfortunately, only Dubai can accommodate 25,000 people, in Abu Dhabi and Sharjah it is 15,000-16,000. It will be an expat-oriented tournament.
"We are hopeful with the support of the local machinery and agencies, a successful, corruption-free IPL can dispel the perception about the UAE as a venue," said Mazhar Khan.