IPL so far a tale of two starkly different pitches — Chennai and Mumbai

Thanks to the pandemic, first 20 games will be played equally at MA Chidambaram Stadium in Chennai and Wankhede in Mumbai. Expect fresh trends and tactics as venues change for the next 40 matches

Because matches have alternated almost every night between Chennai and Mumbai, it’s difficult to not feel at times that two different tournaments are being played out simultaneously. Pic: RCB

The unique scheduling of Indian Premiere League 2021, stemming from obvious constraints, has served to bring the dichotomy in patterns at the two venues (being used in the initial stages) into sharp focus. Forced to abandon the home-and-away format due to logistical challenges at a time when the second wave of COVID pandemic is sweeping unchecked across the country, the first 20 games of the 60-match IPL have been distributed equally between the MA Chidambaram Stadium in Chennai and the Wankhede Stadium in Mumbai.

Neither ground has produced anything out of character so far. As has been the case, Wankhede is a batsman’s ally; beautiful batting strips and small boundaries serving up veritable run-feasts thus far. Chepauk too has played true to norm, already sluggish surfaces rendering stroke-making all but impossible once the innings reaches its second half and the ball loses its hardness.

In the normal course of events, the contrast might not have appeared as stark because between matches at these two grounds, the IPL bandwagon would traverse the length and breadth of the country and engage six other venues, each with its own quirks and eccentricities. But because matches have alternated almost every night between Chennai and Mumbai, it’s difficult to not feel at times that two different tournaments are being played out simultaneously.

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Three of the four matches in Chennai have been won by the team batting first. Indeed, the only game where the team chasing came up trumps was the tournament opener, where Royal Challengers huffed and puffed to a last-ball win, thanks to the brilliance of AB de Villiers, after being set 160 for victory by defending champions Mumbai Indians.

At the Wankhede, however, the ball has disappeared to all parts of the ground and beyond, and sides batting second haven’t had to face the same twin threats of grip and slowness as in the Tamil Nadu capital. Indeed, two nights back, Rajasthan Royals came within one blow of overhauling Punjab Kings’ mountainous 221, reiterating that the balance is as skewed towards the bat in Mumbai as it is towards the ball in the southern metropolis, where totals are dwindling with every successive innings.

Against this backdrop, the toss would appear to have massive ramifications. Logic dictates that you bat first in Chennai, and stick the opposition in Mumbai. But remarkably, not once has a captain opted to set a target at the Chidambaram Stadium yet. With six matches remaining, and given what has transpired in the first week, that’s certain to change. But teams have perhaps been too obsessed with the dew and its potential ramifications that they seemed to have missed the forest for the trees.

Sunrisers Hyderabad, thus, find themselves firmly entrenched at the foot of the table after sustaining two defeats despite David Warner’s luck with the coin holding on both occasions. The Hyderabad franchise has the reputation of being a crack bowling outfit which has defended totals in the region of 130 with regularity and confidence in its Uppal bastion. Conditions in Chennai aren’t too different from what the Sunrisers are used to in Hyderabad; why they have chosen to deviate from the path that has brought them great success is hard to fathom.

Also read: IPL 2021: Cricket bats on in the time of COVID 2.0

The pitch has massively influenced several extraordinary collapses towards the back-end of innings in Chennai. Mumbai Indians, for instance, have lost six for 31 and seven for 38 in their two games, Kolkata Knight Riders surrendered four for 18, and the match, to the champions with victory all but a given, and Sunrisers imploded spectacularly on Wednesday to gift-wrap RCB a remarkable victory. Needing 35 off the last four overs with eight wickets in hand, Warner’s team self-destructed, losing six for 27 in 23 deliveries. All these numbers go to show that in Chennai, wickets in hand with an eye on a blistering final assault has little meaning. They also reiterate the need for realistic assessment of goals and targets, and smartness more than raw muscle in setting up and chasing down totals. The Chepauk surface might not be ideal for T20 cricket, but with the ball disappearing into the horizon these days with monotonous frequency, the occasional low-scoring thriller isn’t unwelcome. The problem is that because matches in Chennai are coming thick and fast, the low-scoring pow-wow is no longer the exception.

Six matches are still to be staged in Chennai, of which Sunrisers are due to play three. At the start of the tournament, they might have fancied leaving Chennai with at least three wins under their belt, given the composition of their squad and their liking for Chepauk-like conditions. Now, they are already playing catch-up at this early stage of the competition, though with 12 league fixtures to play, it is anything but a lost cause.

Because of the slowness of the Chennai surfaces, there has been great delight for bowlers. No one had taken a five-wicket haul against Mumbai in 13 previous editions of the IPL. This season, lightning has struck twice in two games. Harshal Patel ended the long drought on the opening night, while the irrepressible Andre Russell followed suit on Tuesday with five for 15, made even more remarkable by the fact that he only bowled two overs. Intelligent, crafty bowlers with not necessarily the biggest hype around them have fused cunning and guile to make a name for themselves, Rahul Chahar and the unfancied Shahbaz Ahmed striking telling blows for spin on successive nights.

As the tournament moves away from these two centres in 10 days’ time and travels to Delhi, Kolkata, Bengaluru and Ahmedabad — which will also host the playoffs — fresh trends will emerge, tactics will change, approaches will witness seismic shifts. Team managements, players and fans know what to expect at each of these grounds. Yet, such is the pull of the IPL and the fickleness of a format that can change in the blink of an eye that there is little danger of reaching saturation point, empty stadiums or not.

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