How sluggish Chepauk pitches have robbed T20 cricket of its charm

Cricket is meant to be an even contest between bat and ball, but in Chennai, the scales were so heavily tilted towards the ball that not even some of the most accomplished batsmen could stamp their class

Indian Premier League, IPL, BCCI, coronavirus, COVID-19
Chennai's Chepauk Stadium once enjoyed the reputation of being one of the better centres, pitch-wise, in the country. File photo: Wikimedia Commons

The mercurial Ben Stokes dismissed it as ‘trash’. VVS Laxman, more forgiving, termed it ‘far from ideal for T20 cricket’.

The Rajasthan Royals’ all-rounder and the Sunrisers Hyderabad mentor were both alluding to the playing surfaces on offer at the MA Chidambaram Stadium in Chennai for IPL 2021, slow burners that sucked the joy out of the 20-over slug-fest and reduced it to a torturous battle of attrition.

Such is the scheduling of this year’s competition that Stokes’ Rajasthan didn’t even make the trip down south; in any case, England’s World Cup hero is already back home, nursing a broken finger that will keep him out of action for a while. Hyderabad lost four of their five games at Chepauk, undone as much by the lack of experience and explosiveness in their middle-order as the sluggish, hesitant pitches which the ball had to be almost coaxed to leave.

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Cricket is meant to be an even contest between bat and ball, with the dice ideally slightly loaded in favour of the bowlers in the longer version. The opposite applies in the white-ball formats, where the promise of crunchy fours and soaring sixes keeps the fans enthralled. Too much of one or the other disrupts the balance and triggers a similarity that can be monotonous and off-putting. In Chennai, the scales were so heavily tilted towards the ball that not even some of the most accomplished batsmen could stamp their class.

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Ten completed first innings yielded just two totals in excess of 160; four others provided scores ranging from 120 to 159. Stroke-production was next to impossible once teams got into the second half of the innings, particularly while batting second, and the toss therefore became a vital, often decisive factor.

There is a certain exhilaration to watching top-class bowlers portraying their skills even in helpful conditions, of that there is little doubt. When James Anderson whoops it around corners on a cloudy, damp day or R Ashwin spins a tantalising web of deceit at the slightest hint of assistance from the surface, the action commands undivided attention. That’s primarily a long-format trait. Limited-overs versions generally necessitate true surfaces where the ball comes nicely on to the bat, with bounce the bowlers’ primary, sometimes only, ally. Chepauk had anything but true surfaces. The sluggishness of the various pitches prepared discouraged ball-striking. There was a sameness to the pattern night after night, exacerbated by the rapidity with which matches came, given that Chennai and Mumbai alone equally split staging rights for the first 20 games of the 60-match competition.

Between them, Mumbai Indians, Royal Challengers Bangalore, Sunrisers, Kolkata Knight Riders, Delhi Capitals and Punjab Kings managed just 250 fours and 101 sixes in 20 innings – that’s on an average 12.5 fours and a little over five sixes in each 20-over innings. That’s far, far less than the market average; only 15 half-centuries were registered, Nitish Rana’s 80 in the opening match of the tournament the highest individual score in Chennai this season. Most of the 50-plus scores cascaded from the willows of batsmen in the top-four, but not even a batsman as gifted as Virat Kohli could reach that mini-milestone despite opening the batting in all his three hits. The only batsmen who seemed to master Chepauk were AB de Villiers and Glenn Maxwell, mavericks to whom such mundane matters as the playing surface seem to make no difference. The rest, among them the likes of Kohli, Rohit Sharma, Chris Gayle, Andre Russell and KL Rahul, were reduced to mere mortals, forced to nudge and graft and nurdle as competent but hardly world-beating bowlers grew fangs.

It’s unimaginable now that at one stage, Chennai possessed the finest tracks in all of India. The legendary GR Viswanath rates the surface for the Pongal Test of 1979 as easily the fastest, bounciest pitch on which he has played in India, and even until the middle of the 2000s, Chepauk enjoyed the reputation of being one of the better centres, pitch-wise, in the country. Gradually, though, the character of the square has changed. How much of it has to do with the IPL is anybody’s guess, though there is no disputing the fact that Chennai Super Kings used those conditions brilliantly as they picked horses for courses astutely and set stall as the most successful franchise of the competition until Mumbai Indians started to call their bluff.

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The dynamics of this edition have rendered home advantage a non-starter. Furthermore, given how little cricket has been played over the last 14 months due to the coronavirus pandemic, the excuse of tired pitches at the end of a long season doesn’t hold water, either. The last competitive game at Chepauk before the April 9 start of the IPL was the second India-England Test which ended on February 16. With nearly two months at their disposal, the curator(s) had adequate time to come up with good surfaces while making allowances for the fact that matches would come thick and fast.

Admittedly, there were no spectators at the ground to feel short-changed, but millions watch each game with rapt attention as they seek a temporary escape from the gruesome reality of the raging second wave that is leaving a trail of unprecedented destruction in its wake. With all due respect, they’d rather enjoy watching Kohli playing an exquisite cover-drive, or Rohit unleashing his trademark front-foot pulls, than Harshal Patel using cutters and slower balls superbly or Shahbaz Ahmed taking three wickets in one over to rescue a lost cause. They have every reason to feel let down, not because their favourite stars were outwitted by the skills of the opposition alone, but also through generous and unwarranted assistance for the generally thankless bowling fraternity.

After just one game, Ahmedabad threatens to follow in Chennai’s footsteps, which isn’t necessarily a great development. The IPL needs some fireworks too, it needs for its batting stars to sparkle and dissipate, if only ephemerally, some of the gloom hovering menacingly.

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(The Federal seeks to present views and opinions from all sides of the spectrum. The information, ideas or opinions in the articles are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Federal)

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