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IPL 2021: Not Just Catches, Pitches Also Win T20 Matches

IPL 2021: Not Just Catches, Pitches Also Win T20 Matches

All franchises buy players – or trade or offload them – based to a very large extent on the seven `home’ matches they have.

Wednesday’s double-header in the Indian Premier League provided a vivid example of how pitches can influence the outcome of T20 matches.

In the first game, Punjab Kings posted a paltry 120 which gave Sunrisers Hyderabad the opportunity to get their first points in this tournament. The second match was a study in contrast, 422 runs beings scored, Chennai Super Kings prevailing by 18 runs after making 220 — but not before a massive scare from Kolkata Knight Riders’ belligerent lower order.

This is not an isolated instance. Over the first fortnight of the tournament, this has pretty much been the pattern.

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Both these venues have produced very different results. In the eight matches played at the Chepauk, only 3 innings have seen scores in excess of 180, while there have been 11 scores under 160. The skew in favour of bowlers at this venue is evident.

At the Wankhede, it’s been a different ball game, so to speak. There have been 8 scores in excess of 180, including 5 over 200, and just 5 below 160, widely considered a par score in T20. Over here, the advantage for batsmen comes through clearly.

Why I am highlighting this is because the IPL has been structured differently from previous seasons because of the Covid pandemic which necessitated reducing the number of playing centres from 8 to 6, which four fixed venues spread over the six for each team.

Initially, this led to a lot of misgivings and heartburn among franchises like Punjab Kings, Sunrisers Hyderabad and Rajasthan Royals since Mohali, Hyderabad and Jaipur were excluded from the venues, and Ahmedabad, which does not have a team in the League, was included.

To kill dissent and ensure fairness, it was decided to discard `home’ matches for all teams. So, in the first fortnight of the tournament when only two venues have been used, Mumbai Indians have played all their four matches yet at the M Chidambaram Stadium, while Chennai Super Kings have played their four matches at the Wankhede Stadium.

While fair in the context of the pandemic, this system has queered the selections for the eight teams to differing degrees. All franchises buy players – or trade or offload them – based to a very large extent on the seven `home’ matches they have.

All franchises perceive them as winning opportunities. They pick players with skills to suit conditions, often tailor pitches to suit the players. Then, much time is spent in providing the squad familiarity with `home’ pitches, through training and practice matches to have them primed for the main tournament.

If home matches are cancelled for whatever reasons, it can throw a team out of whack in the competition. And `home’ advantage cannot be a perfunctory description. It has to do with specific conditions for which specific talent has been hired.

For instance, in the last season which was shifted to the UAE, there were home and away games, but this was of no relief to some teams, notably CSK whose squad was built around players most useful in Chennai, and some other venues in India. In the UAE, some players considered crucial for CSK, like Imran Tahir, hardly got a game.

This season too, CSK found themselves in a bit of a bind after `home’ matches in Chennai were scrapped. That is one reason Imran Tahir hasn’t been seen in a single match as yet. On the featherbeds of the Wankhede, M S Dhoni has preferred not to expose him. Will he play at other venues designated for CSK we’ll have to wait and see,

Likewise, Punjab Kings spending big bucks on BBL stars, fast bowlers Jhye Richardson and Riley Meredith, was because normally there would have been seven home matches at Mohali, where fast bowlers get help. Similarly, the selection of Moses Henriques, who is a fast-bowling all-rounder.

Interestingly, the fortunes of CSK and PBKS have been diametrically different so far this season. After four matches each, CSK are top of the points table, while Punjab languish at the bottom.

What explains this?

There could be several reasons. CSK coach Stephen Fleming said that a change in attitude (more ambitious this time one reckons) and acquisition of some key players (Moeen Ali and Raina’s return presumably) have helped the team. In second-placed RCB’s case, overseas players – A B de Villiers, Kyle Jamieson, Glen Maxwell – and especially the last name clicking has been the big change.

Where the other two teams in the tour four on the points table – defending champions MI and last season’s runner up DC – are concerned, they were marked by the versatility in their squads last season too, having players for all kinds of pitches and conditions. In MI’s case, in fact, the depth and variety in the bowling has helped in the team winning two of four matches in spite of below-par batting.

Teams placed 5-8 in the points table currently are either not as resourceful in terms of talent (Rajasthan Royals, for instance, after losing Joffra Archer and Ben Stokes), or their efforts have been disjointed despite a high talent quotient, as in KKR’s case.

All this makes the situation going ahead – when matches shift to Ahmedabad and Delhi in the second phase — hugely interesting and fairly unpredictable. How the pitches at these venues play will determine how the points table will move.

One question that has cropped up this season is if removing the `home’ advantage makes the tournament `fairer’, why not adopt this every season. But that would disallow growth of team loyalty. All leagues in any sport are based on city loyalty. Take that out, and the league itself would fizzle out.

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